New Owners Want Locals to Feel at Home at Tustumena Lodge
There aren’t many highways suitable for road-tripping in Alaska. But the ones we do have are dotted with plenty of interesting road-side attractions. In the third part of a series we’re calling “Roadside Attractions,” we make a pit stop at the recently re-opened Tustumena Lodge in Kasilof.
The lodge, with its big, eye-catching “T” out front, had seen sitting vacant for many years when current co-owner Scott Wehrstein made an off-hand comment to his dad, Ed.
"We were driving by one day. He was up for the summer visiting and I said ‘hey, dad, you know the old T’s for sale. We should go in partners on it.’ And I didn’t know he was friends with Suzie Cook, the old owner. So about two days later he says ‘are you serious?’ And I said ‘serious about what?’ And he said ‘buying the T,’” Scott said.
The elder Wehrstein used to own a restaurant in Homer called The Odyssey, which was formally known as Addie’s Porpoise Room. Scott said he’s never owned or operated his own business, but he’s no stranger to the restaurant industry.
“Cooking has always been a part of my life. But doing it for a lot of people, it’s easy, but banquet style cooking is a lot easier than doing it as a restaurant,” he said.
Banquet style is the way to go at the lodge. And prime rib nights have become pretty popular since the place reopened over the summer. Scott said he and his family are trying to make the lodge a local’s place again. And that’s definitely a tall order considering its recent history.
After long-time owners Suzie and John Cook sold the business to another operator, the relationship between the Big “T” and the locals got a little contentious. One of the ways Scott and his dad tried to bring the folks back in was putting up a rather large sign that read “Locals, get your asses back in here!”
“Just to kind of lighten the mood. We’re not serious. We’re here to have a good time,” he said.
And keeping in line with making it a comfortable place for folks in the area, the new management is always taking input from the clientele.
“If there’s something they want to see… on the menu, or musically-wise in here, if we can do it and it benefits everybody, we’re going to do it. It’s not just our bar. We look at it… it’s the community’s bar. It always has been,” he said.
Scott said he wants the lodge to play host to weddings and meetings like it was in the past. The only things that won’t be coming back are the nearly 28,000 hats that used to line the inside of the place. Those hats landed the lodge in the Guinness Book of World Records.
And Scott said they’re still fine-tuning the Big “T” by trying out new recipes, cooks and bartenders; any changes needed to make sure everyone feels welcome and taken care of.
“It’s almost as comfortable as being at home. What we want people to feel like when they come here… they are an extended part of our family and they get treated as such.”
Also, he said it’s no problem to bring the kids. And who knows, maybe you’ll truly become part of the extended family and be asked to haul wood like Scott’s son was on a recent Saturday. But I’m sure Scott would prefer you to sit back, relax and enjoy the grub.