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Walking into The Lifthouse, located at the base of Utah’s Big Cottonwood Canyon, is like walking into a skier’s dream shop. The clean racks are full of the latest outerwear and the ski and boot area always seems busy with the hustle and bustle of employees working on customer’s boots or explaining the differences between the many skis on the wall.
The owners of this shop, Zac and Luke Larsen, took over the family business from their dad who first started the family business with a shop at the base of Brighton Ski Area. Since 2012, the two brothers have put a lot of love and work into making The Lifthouse what it is, and they’ve sacrificed a lot of powder days to make sure that their customers can have the best day ever. But that doesn’t mean that the Larsen brothers don’t get their fair share of turns. Luke has been a SKI Magazine SKI Tester for over a decade, and, as evidenced in a new video from Ski Utah highlighting the shop, Zac is very capable of keeping up with his brother on the hill.
Watch: Powder People | The Lifthouse Brothers
After stopping by the shop in March, SKI caught up with the brothers about the history of the shop, competing with both the internet and chain stores and the next generation of Larsens.
SKI: You both grew up with your dad running the shop at Brighton, but when did you make the decision to run your own ski shop?
Luke Larsen: I always remember wanting to be in the ski business, maybe because it was so much of my life growing up I couldn’t imagine doing something else. And skiing is pretty awesome.
Zac Larsen: Somewhere in my early 20s when I had time to reflect on the way I was raised and the life my dad gave to me. It was something I wanted to pass on to my family.
SKI: How long have you been running the shop? Have you both run it since the beginning or did one join later on?
Zac: Getting to the point of running the shop was part of a slow transition of our dad retiring. Our dad started slowly spending more time away from the shop in the early 2000s, and by 2012 he had handed over the majority of the responsibilities that come with running the shop.
SKI: How long have you been at the mouth of the Big Cottonwood Canyon? Where did you move from or have you always been there?
Luke: The Lifthouse has been at the mouth of Big Cottonwood since 1972. Our Dad took it over in 1978. His first shop was the Woodhaus at Brighton Ski resort. He opened the Woodhaus in 1967 with a loan he took out on his car. He was 25 at the time.
Zac: As we move forward as owners of the ski shop, I take a lot of responsibility in honoring and growing our dad’s legacy and everything he has accomplished.
SKI: How do you vet/train your employees to deliver good service? How does that training differ from chain stores like REI?
Luke: I wish there was a solid method for doing this as there is a lot of trial and error in finding the right employees. The number one thing is they need to love skiing or snowboarding. Without that connection to the mountains and the sport, it’s hard to keep them motivated to get customers excited about the sport. In comparison with chain stores, we are a much tighter and smaller group with something like a family dynamic. The best part about focusing on one sport like skiing is that we can have employees that all care about the sport and not get pulled over from the fishing department because we got too busy.
Zac: Customer service is our number one priority. We treat our employees like family and we hope that they treat the customers in that same manner.
SKI: Ski gear sales are up across the board right now, and online sales are at monumental levels. Why do you think people still come to your shop these days?
Zac: We have a great location right at the mouth of two canyons that service four amazing resorts. Also, people still like to come in for the knowledge of our expert staff. It’s always nice to see the product in person, and it’s hard to flex ski over the internet. After all, you can have virtual sex but you just can’t virtually flex a ski.
Luke: For a lot of customers getting that perfect ski for their foreseeable future can be daunting. Talking with someone face-to-face about the different models and what they do and who it’s best for goes a long way. People like to share a lot about who they are, past skiing stories, and where and what they ski when deciding to buy. It’s really hard to do that over a chat box or just by looking at pictures online.
SKI: What would you tell someone who is thinking about buying skis or ski boots online? Why should they go to a local ski shop instead?
Zac: Why do you want my kids to starve?
Luke: Skis are hard online, but boots are about impossible. Every year we sell more and more ski boots. We do a 3D scan of every customer’s foot, listen to feedback, and what kind of skiing the person would like to do. After the boot is purchased, we still take care of the customer and help with additional custom fitting after they have skied on it and find those hidden hot spots. We do a lot of boot work for people who have bought boots online, and most of the time they never get a great fit because they didn’t start off with the right boot in the first place. No amount of boot work will make the boot perform the way it should, especially if the boot is too big. And until skiing goes completely virtual, a bad pair of ski boots will always ruin your day.
SKI: What is the best ski area in the Wasatch?
Zac: We couldn’t be more fortunate than to have four world-class ski resorts right in our backyard. For me, Snowbird is where I skied as a teenager and I fell in love with the mountain. It has been home ever since.
Luke: In my biased opinion, Big and Little Cottonwood both offer some of the best skiing in the world. Brighton, Solitude, Alta, and Snowbird all have their unique personalities and terrain. There isn’t much you can’t find in these two canyons. However, growing up I was part of the Snowbird ski team and it has always felt like home since then.
SKI: Are you training your kids to run the shop yet? Three generations of family ownership sounds pretty legit.
Zac: My kids are a little young for that, I will leave it up to them to see if this is something that they want to do. I would want them to have the same passion that Luke and I have for the business.
Luke: In the same way our dad got us into the business, we are trying to pass on a love for skiing [to our kids], but a love for skiing doesn’t always transfer into a love of ski business. The odds are still pretty good with my brother’s three kids and my four Larsens that the next generation will continue to run The Lifthouse.
SKI: What would you tell someone who is thinking about starting their own ski shop?
Luke: It’s a great industry to work in, with a lot of really cool people, but—and it’s a big but—you’re going to miss out on a lot of powder days. Also, you’re going to be as bad as any farmer when it comes to watching the weather. Skiers are an eccentric and passionate bunch, in the best kind of ways. It is a very colorful industry that we have the pleasure to work in and it is a very small world that brings together doctors and lawyers with ski bums bussing tables and working night shifts. Couldn’t ask for much more than that except for more snow.
Learn more about The Lifthouse on the shop’s website.