June 21, 2019 / BARE IT ALL
June 21, 2019
A lot of people talk about creating a sustainable experience. Lu Harlow works hard to turn those words into memorable actions.
We recently read about Lu in a FORBES article for International Women’s Day, and were instantly drawn to her story and uncommon design approach. Lu is on a mission to create meaningful food experiences at Yellowstone National Park and we had the opportunity to chat with her to learn more about her background and sustainable approach to food services.
As the Director of Food and Beverage for Yellowstone National Park Lodges, Lu oversees the park’s largest department. The operations have more than 30 guest-facing food and beverage outlets, ranging from cocktail lounges to espresso carts and fine dining, and will serve around two million guest meals per year. There are also eight employee dining rooms and five employee pubs that serve 750,000 meals a year.
Originally from New England, Lu and her family settled in Southern New Hampshire. “The foodie thing is a family thing,” Lu explained. It’s always played an important role in her life and it’s some of her best early memories—from the small family farm she called home, filled with livestock, a mean rooster and fresh food from the garden, to the early food service jobs she worked. And it’s in her DNA. Both her mother and father were incredible cooks.
“They would harvest fiddle head ferns, dandelion greens and morel mushrooms from our land, they dabbled in animal husbandry and had a huge garden. We always had dinner together, except on Saturdays, when Mom and Dad would lock themselves up in the kitchen cooking up incredibly delicious meals they would enjoy together by candlelight. My sister and I would wait outside the door until we were invited in to sample whatever delicacies they prepared.”
Increasing sustainable purchases while simultaneously supporting local family farms and ranches.
In 1991, Lu’s mother lost their small family farm, where they raised a family and worked on the land for 20 years. That loss ignited Lu’s passion to support local family owned farms and ranches.
“I personally know what it’s like to lose your land. So, my focus, as well as my teams, has long been on supporting local family owned farms and ranches in an attempt to help them maintain a sustainable ranching/farming model and, most importantly, stay on their land and keep it for future generations.”
Lu’s happy that sustainability has become a common theme in food service over the past 20 years. And, although there’s been a lot of progress in the industry, because of where she’s located, she faces struggles that others don’t. Gardening in Montana and Wyoming is not for the faint of heart. And raising cattle in Wyoming isn’t much easier. Because of this, the National Park Service allows the team to consider a 500-mile radius as local. In 2018, despite their challenges, 60% of their annual purchases were considered sustainable—which, for them, is described as local, organic, sustainable and non-GMO. The support of YNPL has also allowed other businesses, such as small distributing companies, breweries and distilleries, to open, expand and flourish.
Lu admits that most people aren’t traveling to Yellowstone for the food, but for the beauty, the uniqueness of the thermal features and the bears. But that doesn’t stop her from striving to create a memorable experience through food—she carefully considers each aspect of the food service so it complements the beautiful environment that surrounds.
Creating a harmonious experience between the brand and the historic landmark they operate within.
Operating within a National Park is very different. The NPS is Yellowstone National Park Lodges’ client. They technically “own” all of the buildings and YNPL manages them. The common goal for both organizations, in terms of experience design, is to support the history of the park and its structures. When designing new concepts, they push for what the demographic is asking for, carefully consider the rich history—while weighing in the NPS’s desires and directions—and ensures the experiences are harmonious with the historic structures around them.
In their most recent front of house remodel, the NPS requested the building be revived, as it was designed and built during the Mission 66 period. As time went on, Lu explained, “we discovered the average American didn’t know what Mission 66 was—and we were hoping the remodel would help people visualize it better and discover this period in the NPS history.”
Lu shared some of the opportunities and challenges she sees in the food and beverage industry. She highlighted the need for the industry to stay current and fluid, while supporting local ecosystems and being true to the history of the environment. Lu encourages food companies and food service brands to create an experience that is a reflection of the environment and also to support local family farmers and ranchers when possible. She shared a lot of other great facts with us and you can read her full interview below.
She also shared something about Yellowstone that isn’t commonly known: There are close to 10,000 thermal features in Yellowstone, and only about 300 are geysers. Out of those 300 geysers, only a handful are predictable.
Read the interview below.
BD: Where are you from?
Lu Harlow: New England. Lived in southern New Hampshire, but moved out here from Cambridge, Massachusetts.
BD: Tell us a little about yourself – volunteer work, hobbies, interests or little-known facts.
LH: People are shocked at times to hear this, but I’m actually rather shy and an introvert. I love to cook and am currently honing my baking skills, which are not my strongest. My oldest son and I are currently baking our way through a cookbook called “Bake from Scratch: Volume Two.” No easy recipes in this one!
BD: Tell us about you and your background.
LH: I’m originally from New England. My parents moved a bit when I was little, but when I was nine, they decided to call southern New Hampshire home. Food has always played an important role in my life; from our small family farm which included various livestock and a mean rooster, to my parent’s impossibly large garden and love of cooking, to my foodservice jobs in high school. Best early memories almost all include food: fresh fish, fresh eggs, fresh oysters, Dad’s dandelion wine, and Mom’s marinated Fiddlehead Ferns (not my favorite as a child). When I went to college, I was determined to take a break from food service. Well, that lasted until I graduated from college with a BA in Theatre & Communications and my school loans came due. Fortunately, I passed a rigorous interview process with Interstate hotels and landed a job as a cocktail server in Harvard Square in Cambridge. I’m not kidding about rigorous, there were about 150 of us interviewing for 25 positions. It was there that I met two of my most important mentors who insisted that I was meant to be in hotel management and not theatre. I stayed with Interstate for five years and then they wanted me to move somewhere I didn’t want to go, so I decided to move west and try something different. I’ve now been “out west” for 30 years. I met my husband here and together we’ve raised two sons.
BD: Tell us about your position at Yellowstone.
LH: I’m the Director of Food and Beverage for Yellowstone National Park Lodges. I oversee the park’s largest department supporting more than 30 guest facing food and beverage outlets, ranging from cocktail lounges to espresso carts and fine dining. Our operations serve more than two million guest meals a year. We also have eight employee dining rooms that feed about 750,000 employee meals a year and have five Employee pubs that serve adult beverages and food.
BD: How does your education connect to your professional career? What about personal experiences?
LH: I was a theatre and communications major, hence why I worked in the food industry…needed to pay the bills! Personally, my parents were (and my mom still is) incredible cooks. They would harvest fiddle head ferns, dandelion greens and morel mushrooms from our land, they dabbled in animal husbandry and had a huge garden. We always had dinner together, except on Saturdays, when Mom and Dad would lock themselves up in the kitchen cooking up incredibly delicious meals they would enjoy together by candlelight. My sister and I would wait outside the door until we were invited in to sample whatever delicacies they prepared. The foodie thing is a family thing.
BD: What’s your biggest accomplishment?
LH: I’ve raised two incredible, independent boys that are exceptional skiers, fishermen, rafters and hunters and they have hearts the size of their heads. Good kids. As far as work, I’m not sure there’s just one big thing. I’ve been involved in the building of Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the Old Faithful Inn, Roosevelt Lodge and Grant Village kitchen remodels as well as the Canyon Lodge, Food and Beverage enhancement project. All of them significant.
BD: What interested you in working at Yellowstone?
LH: I wasn’t even sure where Yellowstone was until watching the 1988 Fires on NBC news. Tom Brokaw kept repeatedly referring to the “beauty of the area” and I became intrigued. And then the controller that I worked with at the time, Tim Metarko, who previously worked at Canyon, convinced a girlfriend and I that a summer out here was just what we needed. “Better go see it before the rest of it burns,” he said. Not the best sales line, but it worked.
BD: What other departments have you worked in or roles held within the company?
LH: I’m a foodie, always have been and always will be. I worked as the Assistant Food and Beverage Manager at Canyon, the F&B Manager at Roosevelt and Lake Hotel, did a fall stint as the Bear Pit Bar Lead. Diane Hilborn was having a hard time keeping anyone that season. I then joined the support office where I was the F&B Manager Coordinator, Assistant F&B Director and eventually the F&B Director.
BD: Describe one of your favorite things about the park (place, activity, experience).
LH: I love fly fishing and my peaceful place is, and always will be, the Lamar Valley.
BD: Tell us about your work.
LH: My mother lost our small family farm in 1991 after raising a family and working the land for 20 years and that loss has always weighed heavy on us as a family. I personally know what it’s like to lose your land. So, my focus, as well as my teams, has long been on supporting local family owned farms and ranches in an attempt to help them maintain a sustainable ranching/farming model and most importantly stay on their land and keep it for future generations. We try not to lose sight of our community and environmental responsibility.
BD: What makes the project unique?
Not sure if in this day and age it’s really unique anymore—when we started 20 years ago, yes, but now sustainability is a common theme in food service. We have struggles that others don’t. Gardening in Montana and Wyoming is not for the faint of heart. And raising cattle in Wyoming isn’t much easier either. Because of this, the National Park Service allows us to consider a 500-mile radius as local. Sustainability for us is described as local, organic, sustainable, Non-GMO. In 2018, 60% of our annual purchases were considered sustainable.
BD: What does the project aspire to do?
LH: Increase our sustainable purchases, while simultaneously supporting local family farms and ranches.
BD: Has the project/company influenced other programs/companies, and if so, how?
LH: Our support has allowed other businesses, such as small distributing companies, breweries and distilleries to open expand and flourish which has increased access of sustainable products to other smaller food service outlets and restaurants. Win-win!
BD: An important element of brand is based on creating an experience, is there one uncommon principle you follow?
LH: Not really. Operating within a National Park is very different. The NPS is our client. They technically “own” all of the buildings and we manage them. The experience we try to create here has to be in harmony with the historic structures we operate within.
BD: Your designed experiences involved an element of discovery; can you tell us more about this?
LH: In our most recent front of house remodel, the NPS requested the building be revived, as it was designed and built during the Mission 66 period. As time went on, we discovered the average American didn’t know what Mission 66 was—and we were hoping the remodel would help people visualize it better and discover this period in the NPS history. Unfortunately, this time period for design is incongruent with what most National Park travelers are used to experiencing. So, I guess you’d say we’re still waiting for the public to discover why this remodel is what it is.
BD: How do you create food experiences into something that’s lasting and meaningful?
LH: To be honest, most people aren’t traveling to Yellowstone for the food, but for the beauty, the uniqueness of the thermal features and the bears. We strive for our food service to be a complement, or the cherry on top of their once in a life time vacation.
BD: What opportunities do you see in the food and beverage industry? Or Ideas for businesses to explore these opportunities?
LH: The industry has to stay current and fluid and most FS professionals are acutely aware of this. Fluid and current while supporting your local ecosystem and being true to the history of your environment. Create an experience that is a reflection of the environment you’re in and always support your local family farmers and ranchers. Big cities embraced this concept years ago. I’d just like to see the smaller towns and rural areas embrace it as well. Seems we’re just a little slower the farther away you get from major cities. Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s not easy being “green”.
BD: How is experience design managed?
LH: We work for the NPS. They want experience design to support the history of the park and historical structures. So, in short when designing new concepts, we push for what are demographic is asking for while weighing in the NPS’s desires and directions. It is very, very different working in a National Park.
BD: What are you most proud about your career?
LH: This is a hard one for me to answer, but I’m always very proud to have owners/managers from other companies and restaurants tell us how thrilled they are to hire staff that has worked with us previously. We’ve been told repeatedly that we have produced some exceptional staff and managers that have gone on to be quite successful themselves. I’m also proud of the numerous kitchen designs and now FOH designs I’ve been involved with and I still have several more to go before we can call it done!
BD: Share what you consider one of your greatest successes in your YNP career.
LH: Boy that’s right up there with biggest accomplishments… I have mentored quite a few people over the years and many of them have gone on to have successful and happy careers in the food industry.
BD: What are you most passionate about professionally?
LH: Good food, good wine and creating positive lifetime memories for our guests Personally? Good food, good wine, good fishing and of course my two sons, my thoughtful husband and my loyal rescue pup.
BD: How long have you been working in your field?
LH: For a very, very long time. Did I mention I’m a foodie? Professionally about 33 years.
BD: What are you surprisingly good at?
LH: I have prehensile toes. So, I can paint, write, pickup things with my feet. I don’t eat with them though, can’t reach.
BD: What are you complimented on most in your work?
LH: Hmm. That has varied over the years. I used to be a darn good bartender. Now, it’s my attention to detail and my ability to smell a pinot from 3 feet away.
BD: Tell us something about Yellowstone that isn’t commonly known.
LH: There are close to 10,000 thermal features in Yellowstone, and only about 300 are geysers. Out of those 300 geysers, only a handful are predictable.