Understaffing has brought challenges to many local businesses this summer, and the concessionaires at Yellowstone National Park are not immune, having experienced record visitation this summer.
Mike Keller, general manager of Yellowstone National Park Lodges, operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, said his company is at about a 77% staffing level right now.
“We’re still a little behind, but it’s ahead of where it’s been in the past,” he said.
A July 9 food inspection performed at its Canyon Lodge Employee Dining Room following a complaint found multiple instances of food not being kept at the proper temperature, which inspector George Larsen determined was due to lack of training and understaffing.
In one instance, chicken was seen being removed from the grill at temperatures as much as 34 degrees lower than the proper temperature for hot holding. A manager then instructed the employee to put the chicken back on the grill. That manager told Larsen that the employee had recently been moved from a warehouse role to the kitchen without adequate training. He said staff and management told him a lack of adequate staffing and turnover in key positions resulted in inexperienced staff working in food-handling positions without adequate training and oversight.
Former Canyon Village employee Grant Roush said he and other staff members working in the kitchen received no food-handling training or safety training prior to working there.
“While several of the specific items in the complaint cannot be specifically verified, the observations of short staffing and undertrained food handlers are concerning,” Larsen wrote in his report.
Larsen added that Xanterra has historically done well with preseason food safety training.
Potato salad and ranch dressing were also found being kept at improper temperatures, and chicken was found in the serving line measured at four degrees below the proper temperature.
“It’s concerning,” Keller said.
But Keller also viewed this report as more reflective of a one-time incident rather than an ongoing series of mistakes, and that simple mistakes like frequently opening and closing doors can lead to infractions like these.
In his report, Larsen recommended re-training for those who did not receive adequate training and oversight of temperature monitoring and records. No required changes were stipulated in his report.
Keller said they are expecting 240-250 more employees by Sept. 15.
“We’re already doubling down on training areas,” Keller said. “But it’s good to get those reminders.”
Roush made claims of more than a dozen pallets of raw food being left out in the hot sun for hours on end and no temperature logs being kept of the food at the warehouse facility. He said the company doesn’t have adequate capacity to store frozen food, which led to the pallet issue.
Keller denied they are lacking in storage and said the fact that they still did not open facilities this summer has actually allowed the company an increased area for storing food items. He said they have made no changes to their procedures for handling pallets of food.
Larsen’s inspection found no proof of the pallet claim, but did find the claim about the logs to be correct, and recommended changing this practice, although it is not required.
Keller said “we’ve been doing logs for years” and considered the inspection to be an isolated incident.
Keller said their kitchens are inspected 2-3 times a year and Larsen said he performed his most recent inspection without warning.
Roush worked for Xanterra for nine days before being terminated by the company. He decided to stop coming to work when he felt that his concerns about the pallets and other food preparation problems were not being taken into consideration.
He also made a complaint that four employees reported food sickness including vomiting after eating in the employee dining room.
According to Larsen’s report, a total of four employees reported experiencing food-borne illness this summer, but according to him, only two connected this to the food they ate at the employee dining hall.
The two who did draw a connection believed the illness stemmed from a chicken dish that was served on June 19.
“Without medical testing verification and food sample testing it is not possible to deny or confirm the chicken dish was the source of this illness,” Larsen said.
Keller said his company tracks food-borne illness complaints internally from customers.
Roush is now in Florida and said he wants to create a third-party data collection process for employee illnesses and a way to notify guests of these events, and provide a service for them to report and track food poisoning they experienced at any of Xantera’s Yellowstone facilities this summer.
Those who are interested or experienced these symptoms should contact him at email@example.com.