Picture this: You manage logistics for a restaurant. Well, actually, it’s eight restaurants. And each one is on top of a mountain. With limited refrigerator space. Sound challenging? It’s all part of the job for AMC Storehouse Manager Ben Cargill. Cargill and his team stock AMC’s High Mountain Huts in the White Mountains, plus several other backcountry programs. It’s a complex logistical dance honed over decades to maximize efficiency and reduce food waste
At the center of it all is the storehouse. Located next to AMC Joe Dodge Lodge at the base of Mount Washington, the storehouse holds a walk-in freezer and ample non-perishable storage space. Everything hut guests eat makes its way through the storehouse loading dock.
Here’s how Ben and his team move food from farms and suppliers across the region, through the storehouse, and up to the high peaks of the White Mountains.
Prep for the Season
Before AMC’s hut seasonal staff, the “Croo,” arrive, Cargill and the storehouse team get ready for them. They line up partners for the season, from local farmers to large-scale restaurant suppliers, who can meet the unique needs of the AMC hut system.
“Our needs differ from the rest of the industry. I need to know how many heads of lettuce are in a case, because we need to be able to distribute that amongst basically eight different restaurants.”
At food shows, where Cargill meets with potential partners, he typically starts by explaining the challenges AMC faces that on-the-grid restaurants don’t.
“[I tell them that] the only way to access these huts is by foot or by helicopter. We have plenty of dry storage space in the [storehouse] basement, but we don’t have a lot of fridge and freezer space. And that is why we have to be very careful with what we buy, how much we buy.”
In all, Cargill will order between three and five thousand dollars of food a week, for a total of about half a million dollars a season.
In late spring, AMC hut and storehouse staff begin working with a helicopter service to airlift supplies and non-perishable food to each hut. These include items that would be impossible to carry to the huts on foot or are too heavy or bulky to make it practical, like bags of sugar and flour. It takes months of advance planning to get ready for the airlifts.
“We need to sift through what we have on hand, see what we need, distribute the backstock, then deduct that from the new order, and then repeat the process by eight,” says Cargill.
In the days leading up to an airlift, Cargill, Purchasing and Logistics Manager Frank Jost, AMC’s Contruction Crew, and a group of seasonal workers will stage the airlift area, organizing supplies on pallets by hut and placing them in mobile storage units or trailers.
Using helicopters is one of the reasons Cargill can only work with partners ready for specific requests that are often outside the industry norm.
“I once ordered eight 25-pound bags of onions. And then a provider sent me four 50-pound bags. And I was like, that’s not what I want because the helicopter can only take a finite amount of weight,” says Cargill, shaking his head.
In 2023, each hut was airlifted about 10 to 12 loads of supplies, weighing about 1,600 pounds each, to start the season.
When the season begins and the huts open up to hikers and guests, Cargill and his team get busy. Really busy.
For multiple reasons, Cargill can’t order food too far in advance. Croos don’t find out how many guests to expect, and whether those guests have dietary restrictions, until a few days before. They also choose what they cook for guests each night. Finally, the storehouse’s walk-in refrigerator can only fit so much perishable food.
“So, there’s nothing ever sitting around more than a day or two,” says Cargill.
Every few days, Croos fill out a form for the storehouse team in which they select the ingredients they’ll need from a list and write how much of each item they want. Each form also includes a space for the Croos to go “off-menu” and request ingredients not on the list. Over the years, Cargill has seen some creative choices from the Croo.
“Sometimes it’s kombucha or seeds or Hot Cheetos. That’s always a fun thing for us to do to go and find that.”
Once the storehouse team places and receives their orders, label and weigh each box, and package it by hut, it’s finally time to distribute. Wednesdays and Saturdays are “truck” days. This is when the storehouse team drives a large vehicle filled with food to eight trailheads and meets each hut’s respective Croo. There, storehouse staff take the hut’s trash and new food order forms and give Croos their food. Each trailhead features a “packhouse,” a shed with storage space and a refrigerator. Pack houses are used to store excess food for later and minimize the risk of food spoilage.
Staff take two truck trips, one for the eastern huts and the other for the western huts, following routes that have been refined over the years. Each Croo has a set time they’re supposed to hike down to the trailhead, so punctuality is very important.
“It’s a complicated ballet of logistics. You’ve got to make sure you’re on time because if you’re late to Galehead, then you’re going to make everybody else late, too,” says Cargill.
Packing with the Croo
Once the truck drop is complete, food is now the responsibility of the hut Croo. Each Croo member at the trailhead loads up a packboard, a pack made from a wooden frame and straps of leather, with food. They’ll be responsible for carrying it up to the hut. While this method may seem old-fashioned, it’s done for a reason. Packboards distribute weight on the body differently from a backpacking pack, so if a user trips, they’ll fall in a safer manner.
While Cargill works hard to source products that minimize weight, packing remains physically demanding work.
“Lakes of the Clouds is our biggest hut. Croos pack usually between 400 and 500 pounds of food twice a week. That can be anywhere from like 10 to 25 boxes. That’s a lot.”
The Croo’s work may be the most visible part of getting food to the huts, and for good reason: Croo interface with the public, hike with loaded packboards, and prepare family-style meals. But there’s a lot of work that goes into getting fresh food in their hands. From managing the logistics of a supply chain built for the backcountry to heavy lifting in the storehouse, much of that labor takes place behind the scenes.
It’s a lesson to keep in mind wherever we get our food, whether from a supermarket or delivered by helicopter or packboard.