JACKSON — The toughest decision made at Dornan’s these days is what toppings might best round out that 15-inch pizza as the sun sets behind the Tetons.
The average tourist and most locals have no idea what it took prove up for the 11-acre commercial compound within Grand Teton National Park.
A century ago for the family that homesteaded the property, it was nip and tuck just surviving the winters. Seventy years ago, the Dornans were chasing the feds off their land after all around them had sold out to Rockefeller.
And for the past decade or more, a fifth generation of Dornans have resisted the temptation to sell out while the valley grows at a dizzying pace.
“We celebrated 100 years in business last summer and the goal now is 100 more,” said Will Dornan, whose father Bob ran the operation for three decades until his death in 2016 at the age of 86.
“The family could have cashed out at any time, called Bill Gates and said, ‘Write me a check.’ In a heartbeat it would be gone,” Will said. “But nobody in the family wants to see it go.”
Will’s cousin Huntley oversees services at the property now. He traces his lineage back to great-grandmother Evelyn, who filed for the homestead in 1922.
“It is too important to me and my family to give up on. Our family has always understood the significance of a place that has this kind of continuity while all of Jackson Hole loses its history,” Huntley said. “I don't want to be another thing that just went away.”
A View To Dine For
The Dornan’s enjoyed today by thousands of visitors and locals has evolved through the years, but continues to serve the same basic purpose as a respite for hungry and weary travelers, a base station for outdoor adventures and destination dining with a prima pasta vista.
Back in the day, Moran-to-Jackson was a stretch not easily accomplished without a stop. These days, with the ability to zoom from Dubois to Jackson on a tank of gas or a battery full of volts, Dornan’s is less needed as a break for travelers, but it gets tourist business just the same for its location — smack at the base of the Tetons near the park entrance gate.
So, while the fuel station isn’t exactly buzzing anymore, the back deck at Pizza & Pasta Co. is packed day and night. All summer, the place fills with locals and visitors after a day on the nearby lakes or the river. The view is killer and the pizza is well above average.
“Turns out pizza is easy to make and you don't need a lot of space, so we were able to put out food we think is really good,” Huntley said of the tiny commercial kitchen built along with the bar in 1978.
It wasn’t until 2000 when Dick Dornan thought the building was underutilized with just the bar that the pizza/pasta restaurant was added.
Long before the pizza/pasta restaurant, Dornan’s was known for its chuckwagon fare. The cast iron cooking, especially the sourdough pancake breakfast, became something of a staple at Dornan’s. Incidentally, the sourdough starter goes back generations in the family, Will said.
The outdoor chuckwagon dining area offers picnic table seating (many under a covered pavilion) spread out near the familiar giant teepee. Launched in 1948 shortly after World War II, the chuckwagon has morphed through the years.
“It’s changed a lot. Much to the chagrin of a handful of crusty folks, we don't do the Dutch oven pots anymore. That was a hard one to stop doing. But the truth is it just wasn’t popular enough to continue,” Huntley said. “The chuckwagon really carried the weight for the whole place for many years. It’s been a good contributor.”
The award-winning wine shop and liquor store at Dornan’s is legit. Ask any sommelier in the valley (and there are plenty of them), the vino on-property is top shelf.
Just how is it such a fabulous selection of wines should be found at an out-of-the-way stop like Dornan’s?
It all began with Jack Dornan (more on him later). Winters were hard in the early days, so Jack would spend them in California where he worked for a Ford dealership. While there, Jack developed strong ties with the wine industry in Napa Valley.
Jack knew affluent guests at area dude ranches like the JY, White Grass and the STS would appreciate a quality selection, so he made the effort to personally visit California wineries and establish relationships that live on today.
“I went on a Napa tour once with my dad, Bob, when I was younger and I will never forget how we were treated,” Will said. “The Dornan name and reputation was legend out there. Bob kept that up, and whether it’s Harrison Ford or the Rockefellers or the Forbes family, we’ve hosted many people in the basement under the grocery store where we stock the rare and high-end wines.”
The stellar wine selection shouldn’t have to be a secretive, invite-only kind of thing. All are welcome to imbibe.
“Absolutely, we are trying to tell that story more. It’s something we’ve been doing since Prohibition ended,’ Huntley said. “I just spent some time this fall on the road visiting wineries and attending a sommelier’s conference, trying to bring those guys to Moose, trying to highlight what we do here with wine as much as we can.”
Evolving Business Model
Several other amenities fill out the resort area. The handy convenience store has those useful camping items as well as a super busy deli section where hundreds of sandwiches are made daily during summer.
The grocery store building itself may have moved around a little, but it dates back to at least the 1920s as one of the oldest on the property.
The Spur cabins — a dozen in all — are rented year-round and almost always at capacity during the summer.
“That’s a nice business even though it’s a pretty small aspect of what we’re doing here,” Huntley said. “We always had ambitions when we built them to have some winter business as well.
“We have always been fairly successful around the holidays and then COVID hit and, come to find out, it is really a pain in the ass keeping the access roads clear of snow. It is almost not possible. So, I've gone to back to being grateful they are only half full in winter.”
Also on property is an array of retail shops.
Will heads up Snake River Anglers, which is a one-stop shop for anyone looking to wet a fly or book a float trip on the Snake River.
“When I got started, Dornan’s had never done anything with the river. I started the fishing and float trip side in the 1990s and have been doing that for 23 years now,” Will said.
There is also a gift shop onsite as well as bike and canoe rentals. Dornan’s is accessible by bicycle all the way from Jackson (12 miles to the south) via a dedicated paved bike path.
A local art gallery has also been renting space at Dornan’s for the past two years. Art Shop, run by Alex Pope, offers unique and affordable pieces in its carefully curated boutique.
“They are doing really good business there,” Huntley said. “It’s one of the few places that features less expensive local art products for people to bring home. Unlike the galleries in town that sell $10,000 paintings because they have to pay Jackson rent.”
Back Where It All Began
The Dornan family in Wyoming owes everything to the gumption of Evelyn Middleton Dornan.
Divorced with a 15-year-old son, Jack, she first visited Moose, Wyoming, in 1918. Evelyn stayed with fellow Philadelphian Maud Noble at her cabin on the banks of the Snake River.
When she returned back East, Jack remained. The teenager was left with $50 for food and quickly learned to make himself handy with whatever neighbor H.H. Menor needed done, operating the ferry or tending to his lime kilns. It was to be merely the beginning of a Dornan family tradition.
“I went to work for my dad when I was 16 years old for gas money — $1.85 an hour,” Will said. “I think the reason we are still here is there is no nepotism in the family. Dornans are hardest on their own folk.”
That work ethic has helped the family-run business now reach its fifth generation — an accomplishment considering less than 3% of small family businesses in the U.S. remain intact after a third generation.
Jack grew up with some rough customers of the era. The Menor brothers, Buster Estes, Tim Manges and the like. His mother returned in 1921 and filed a claim on the east bank of the Snake River just across from Noble’s cabin.
“When Evelyn filed the paperwork on the 22 acres, the guy from Evanston [Uinta County seat] came all the way up in person. He could not grasp that a single woman from Philly could homestead there. He had to meet her,” Will said.
Evelyn did what she could to survive, but it was Jack who came up with the business plan. After Jack’s marriage to Ellen Jones in 1927 (the first wedding to ever take place at the Chapel of Transfiguration), the Dornan’s commercial operations began to take shape.
Through The Tumultuous 1940s-1970s
Jack made improvements to the family spread even while also working for the U.S. Forest Service and splitting time in San Diego, where he worked winters selling cars.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, Jack and family moved back to Moose permanently and began building the gas station, convenience store, bar and even had plans for a casino. Just as construction was nearly complete, World War II broke out and everything at Dornan’s was put on hold.
In summer 1946, Evelyn did the unthinkable. The only time in the family legacy did a Dornan entertain the notion of selling out. She reached an agreement with a man from Idaho who was to buy the property for $33,500. Thankfully, the man never followed through. Evelyn sold half the property to the Park Service and deeded the other half to her son, Jack.
“There was a time in the 1940-50s that the park was trying to run us out,” Will said. “Especially after 1950 when the monument became officially Grand Teton National Park, there was pressure to sell out.”
Having survived John D. Rockefeller’s land grabs of the 1920s that resulted in the first iteration of the national park in 1929, the Dornan’s faced ever more pressure to sell out post-1950 when the original park and the 1943 National Monument were united into the Grand Teton National Park known today.
Bob recalled his father, Jack, chasing off federal men on more than one occasion.
“Jack even had a guy from Idaho Falls come over and put the words ‘EAT HERE’ in giant lighted letters on the side of one of our barns,” Will said. “You could see that clear to Schwabacher Landing until the barn blew down in the 1970s.”
It was a matter of survival back then. Even through the 1960s, the Dornan family would board up the place for the winter. There just wasn’t the business.
“You can't imagine how hard it was to survive back then. You made your money in the summer and buttoned everything up for the winter,” Will said.
The Year 2122
Things are better now for the family business. The Dornan inholding is viewed more as a valuable asset by the Park Service these days.
“I've been really lucky. When my grandad and uncles were running the business, the relationship with the park was somewhat difficult,” Huntley said. “The way the park viewed its mandate back then was somewhat hostile to inholdings.
“The last 50 years, for all of my life, the park has viewed us as a valued partner. Our relationship now is pretty friendly.”
Somewhere down the line, Will and Huntley hope to be able to pass the family legacy on to their kids, their cousins, their second cousins — someone who will appreciate what it took to put the family name on the map in one of the most scenically spectacular places on earth.