Opinion|When Innovation Looks Like Dancing Dinosaurs

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When Innovation Looks Like Dancing Dinosaurs

To survive the coronavirus, one ski resort has pivoted its business model to incorporate a community grocery store and costumed pizza delivery.

Photographs by Damon Winter

Text by Devi Lockwood

Mr. Winter is a staff photographer on assignment in Opinion. Ms. Lockwood is a fellow in the Times Opinion section.

ImageTrax2Go dinosaurs delivering lunch to health care workers at a drive-through Covid-19 test site in Ithaca, N.Y.
Trax2Go dinosaurs delivering lunch to health care workers at a drive-through Covid-19 test site in Ithaca, N.Y.Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

CORTLAND, N.Y. — In mid-March, after 112 days of being open for the ski season, Greek Peak Mountain Resort shut down its chair lifts and snow-making machines. The hotel and indoor water park closed for business, and preparations for the spring wedding and mountain biking season were put on hold. The staff of 500 was reduced to 17. Greek Peak is an economic powerhouse in central New York. Those layoffs have enormous ripples.

“Everything happened very quickly,” said Drew Broderick, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.

Her team decided to take any perishable items from the mountain resort’s three restaurants and distribute food to employees who were laid off. “Our first priority was to help those employees as much as we could,” she said.

Then, changing the business to accommodate the new reality of coronavirus regulations became a priority. The remaining employees at Greek Peak decided to transform one of their restaurants, Trax, into a takeout and delivery operation, using the hotel kitchen to cook. After seeing pictures of empty grocery store shelves, they pivoted their business strategy again, transforming the lobby space of the hotel into a grocery store with low-cost items for the community.

Greek Peak’s new business goal, rather than making a profit, is to stay alive, keep as many people working as possible and continue to serve their community in a different way.

“I think the new normal is flexibility,” Ms. Broderick said.

This new store offers fruits and vegetables, cheese and meats, and has a lineup of frozen, precooked meals for $4.99 that serve one to two people: Salisbury steak, spaghetti and meatballs, mac and cheese, and beef stroganoff.

The hotel lobby is open daily from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., and on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Access to the store is limited to six people at a time, and everyone has to use hand sanitizer when they enter and exit. People can only touch the food that they are going to buy. Customers bag their own items. No one shakes hands.

At first, standing six feet apart in the improvised grocery store was awkward. “Now it’s just normal,” Ms. Broderick said.

Hank Faber lives in a townhouse on the resort property and walks to the new grocery store to buy milk, eggs, produce and frozen meals. Mr. Faber was formerly relying on Meals on Wheels, but has transitioned to shopping at Greek Peak for food.

Mr. Faber is legally blind, and his only complaint about the store is that the lighting is low. “They usually help me pick out the stuff I need,” he said.

Ayden Wilber, the resort’s director of operations, had the idea to take its new food delivery service one step further. Greek Peak is “not as well known for delivery, so we were trying to come up with a way to make ourselves a little bit unique,” he said.

While perusing Amazon, Mr. Wilber found and ordered two inflatable dinosaur costumes: one for himself and one for Sean O’Brien, a banquet chef. The costumes arrived on March 25. The next day, the two men delivered pizzas to a family in the dino suits while dancing to “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars.

One of the employees filmed the delivery and posted it to Facebook. “This for making people’s day with a little extra Love!!! I mean BIG extra LOVE,” one person commented. “Great job guys, you made my day,” another added.

Soon, they were getting more delivery calls than they could manage. “I didn’t expect the video to go so viral,” Mr. Wilber said.

The process is quick — Mr. Wilber and Mr. O’Brien shuffle out of the van, maintaining a six-foot distance from customers. They wear gloves on their hands. One of the dinosaurs unzips the pizza from the bag that keeps it warm and leaves it on the ground at a safe distance. Then, they dance back into the van.

“I don’t have very good dance skills so I sort of followed Ayden as much as I could,” Mr. O’Brien said. “It’s funny because if you have a long driveway you can sort of get into the character and dance a little bit.” Short driveways are more difficult, he explains. It’s harder to build the anticipation.

Their goal is to “make people laugh and lighten the mood,” Mr. O’Brien said. “Ironically, I’m a relatively shy person so getting inside it is a task in itself, but then the realization that no one knows who you are is a little more comforting.”

In a normal year, Mr. O’Brien would be preparing food for upcoming events, weddings and corporate meetings. Now, he makes pizza, wings and frozen meals. When they get a call for delivery, either he or Mr. Wilber don a dino suit.

“We’re just trying to do our part to keep people happy,” Mr. Wilber said.

“It’s tough times. We’re just trying to lighten the mood and be out there for people,” Mr. O’Brien added.

Angela Gellatly of Cortland received a delivery on April 1 for her family: two pizzas, fried calamari, a salad and mozzarella sticks. She had been to the indoor water park at Hope Lake Lodge, and saw the video of the dinosaur delivery on Facebook.

“We’re bored,” Ms. Gellatly said. “I think it’s genius what they did.” Her family had decided to avoid takeout because of fears about contamination, but they broke that resolve for the dinosaurs. The delivery was an April Fool’s joke for her 6-year-old daughter.

“I think that more people should follow their lead,” Ms. Gellatly said. “Any kind of entertainment and joy and happiness that we can have right now, I think we have to seize the moment.”

Angela VanDeWeert of Marathon, N.Y., ordered pizza, mozzarella sticks and a birthday cake to celebrate her 11-year-old son’s birthday. Two families in the neighborhood came to their yard to celebrate, at an appropriate distance.

“No child wants to have a birthday during this crisis. Just having smiles on their faces is huge right now,” she said. The kids are feeling it. We need reminders that we are in this together and there are smiles underneath the tears right now.”

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Dinosaur delivery in the Cortland area.
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Johnathan Peterson celebrating his 11th birthday with a visit from a dinosaur.

Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Wilber refer to their dinosaur costumes as “hazmat suits.” The hardest part of the delivery is making sure that the costume is inflated enough. “If the wind is blowing, you bobble,” Mr. O’Brien said. They found that they could use a leaf blower to speed up the process of inflating the costumes in the back of the van.

Inside the dinosaur suit, it’s difficult to see, and it’s hot. “The hardest part is when we’re hopping out of the van, if they’re not fully inflated, you’re trying to get them to inflate and stumbling around a little bit, trying not to fall in ditches,” Mr. Wilber said. “It’s kind of a riot.”

The dancing dinosaur delivery has become so popular that Greek Peak has had to limit it to just three days a week — Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. — so that they were not leaving the kitchen empty with an already limited staff.

This week, they delivered pizzas to a coronavirus testing center in Ithaca. On Easter, Mr. Wilber and Mr. O’Brien will deliver premade Easter meals in bunny costumes.

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Devi Lockwood (@devi_lockwood) is a fellow in the Opinion section.