The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the restaurant industry, with mandatory closures and restricted dining hurting restaurants’ business. Owners managed to get creative by expanding outdoor dining spaces and building parklets to seat customers. During the summer the issue was easier to manage. Restaurants created an enjoyable dining experience by rolling up garage doors to increase airflow and seating customers outside. The need for comfortable outdoor dining became clear with winter approaching, so gondola cars became a solution.
Dominique Bastien has become an unlikely hero for struggling restaurants. Her business, The Gondola Shop, refurbishes and polishes old gondola cars to repurpose them for a new life. Initially, they experimented with turning the gondola cars into dog houses and saunas. The town of Mountain Village, near Telluride, CO, contacted them in September to turn five gondola cars into private dining spaces. The gondolas would serve the same purpose as the dining bubbles emerging at many city restaurants. Two weeks later, the town upped their order to 25 cars total.
The Gondola Shop is separate from Bastien’s main line of work. She owns and operates Sunshine Polishing Technology specializing in removing graffiti, scratches, and other blemishes from gondolas. Ski resorts around the world contract them to service gondola cars.
Bastien started buying gondola cars on a whim. Within the last three years, she’s bought 55 gondola cars from Killington Resort in Vermont and 95 from Steamboat Resort in Colorado. For a while, the cars were just sitting in a field near her workshop. After Mountain Village placed their order, she and her team worked quickly to finish the project in just four months.
Now the 25 gondola cars are scattered around the town center in Mountain Village. Equipped with lights, heaters, and speakers, the cars provide reduced-risk dining for four to six people. When they opened ahead of the Christmas holiday season, word of the dining gondolas began to spread through social media and news outlets.
Since the installation of gondola cars in Mountain Village, restaurants in cities around the US have contacted The Gondola Shop. The Shop has fielded inquiries from Sun Valley, Park City, Washington, DC, and San Francisco. Bastien and her team have been working to turn out finished projects as fast as possible. Restaurants can buy a gondola as-is for about $4,800, leaving evidence of its previous life in place. A full rehab involves disassembling, sandblasting, repainting, and reupholstering the cars to fit customer needs, costing about $15,000. Restored cars are also available to rent for about $900 per month.
Ultimately, the ingenuity has provided a boost to a small business owner and flexibility for restaurants to continue serving customers.