Unlikely pair taking Alaska hospitality to next level
Partners Jason Motyka and David McCarthy are changing what it means to pass on Alaskan hospitality one plate at a time.
As what they call the “third generation” of Alaska restaurant owners, they’ve formed partnerships with lettuce growers, fishermen and meat producers. They helped a restaurant down the street — a potential competitor — just as in the old Alaska when neighbors helped neighbors.
And they incorporate unique stories of the frontier to help customers walk away in understanding of what they hope is a deeper experience.
That’s the philosophy of Denali Visions 3000 Corp., owners Motyka and McCarthy, and it earned them Small Business Administration Small Business Persons of the Year Award for Alaska in 2017.
Under the heading of DV3 Corp, the partners own Prospectors Historic Pizzeria &Alehouse, Denali Crow’s Nest Cabins, the Overlook restaurant at the Crow’s Nest, the Denali Park Salmon Bake, 49th State Brewing Co., Miners Market at McKinley RV and Campgrounds in Healy, and the 49th State Brewing Co., in Anchorage located at the former Snow Goose Restaurant on Third Avenue.
“By far, DV3 stood out among the other competition,” said Scott Swingle, the U. S. Small Business Administration Northern Area manager. “Their job creation and what they’ve provided, and not just rural Alaska but for the state, was amazing. They are a brick in our economy.”
Their achievement is especially notable in a state wavering in its dependence on government and oil, Swingle said. Each business was reinvented or created anew.
Community networking to help other small businesses succeed is a keystone SBA value. Another one is job creation.
Between Denali Park, Healy and Anchorage, they employ upward of 600 people each summer season. Distinguishing their “brand” from big international chains at work in the Alaska tourism market, DV3 seeks out the small state producers and transporters to fill its daily fare at venues and give patrons a truly Alaskan meal.
How this nest of companies came about is all under the heading of a “Alaska Hospitality,” McCarthy said, that seeks to go beyond what the cruise ship lines and chain companies market as Alaska.
The first generation of café owners of the homesteading days are long gone now. A second generation that created many of the beloved establishments of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s are retiring now, “and there’s not a lot of young entrepreneurs to step in and take their place, Moytka said.
“We pick unique historical businesses, like the cabins in Denali, and the history of that. If there aren’t enough companies like ours to preserve unique Alaska businesses, then they will be bought by chains or phased out,” Motyka said. “They’ll (chains) bring in their own labor force. There won’t be a lot left for young entrepreneurs.”
But these unique Alaska businesses often need new ingredients for success based on how tastes changed over the past decade: a hamburger and fries isn’t just that nowadays. It’s a “brand” or needs to be an existential experience every bit as memorable as the filet mignon at a five-star restaurant, McCarthy said.
The ol’ Salmon Bake start
Under the ownership of Jason Motyka, 26 years old at the time, the business began with the Salmon Bake in Denali Park in 2005. The restaurant he purchased began with a dirt floor in 1984 by “two guys in the park.”
A few cabins out back were rentals. In the ‘80s, people brought their own buckets of water to flush the toilet. The menu was written on paper plates.
Its rustic frame was atop permafrost, which shifted above each frost and thaw so “there weren’t many 90-degree angles,” said Ellen Maloney, promotions director for DV3 Corp.
But it was tall on Alaska character as a Denali landmark.
Under Motyka, it was a thriving restaurant and the hub of nightlife at Denali Park, but the food had “quality issues.” The Salmon Bake had a flush toilet and a real floor by the time Chicago culinary artist David McCarthy rode up on his motorcycle in 2006. He had taken a trip north for a vacation.
Conversations led to McCarthy taking over the kitchen at the Salmon Bake that summer. But as he set about revamping the menu, the graduate of Kendall College in Chicago with a degree in culinary arts questioned parts of the operation.
“I asked ‘why were we buying Alaska fish from a Washington business that then ships the fish back to us?’” McCarthy said.
Motyka, a lifelong Alaskan raised in Anchorage’s Airport Heights area, labored to explain that’s how it goes with Alaska caught fish processed Outside then sold back in-state. McCarthy wanted none of that.
They began contracting with Homer fisherman Billy Sullivan for salmon, crab and other seafood. (Later they would buy all their produce from local farmers and meat from local producers.)
“David was just what we needed,” Motyka recalled. “In the fall when he was heading back, I told him he could go back to Chicago and open his own restaurant, or he could stay, be a pioneer and become part of dynamic changes.”
McCarthy, 32 at the time, chose to become a pioneer.
It was in 2008 that Motyka and his partner won their first SBA Small Business Persons of the year award.
At the time, the SBA press release stated: “During the three years since the team incorporated their business and leased the facilities, (The Salmon Bake) has shown a 350 percent increase in revenues over the previous owners’ best year and added sixty-five new full- and part-time seasonal jobs to the area.”
Between 2009 and 2014, Motyka and McCarthy established the other businesses in Denali Park and Healy to serve the seasonal crowds coming from all over Alaska and via tour buses and the Alaska Railroad from cruise ships.
Three years after McCarthy attended a Master Brewing program at the Siebel Institute in Chicago, they installed a 15-barrel system and started the 49th State Brewing Co in Healy, in 2013.
By their own admission, they made an odd team. The big city chef whose urban upbringing taught him not to trust strangers thought that the object in business is to beat your competitors out of the market.
A more trusting Motyka, who graduated with a business degree from Western Washington University, believed in the spirit of welcoming newcomers and that Alaska people tend to take care of one another.
“On the way to Washington, D.C., (for the SBA award ceremonies,) I thought about that,” McCarthy said.
Together they seemed to meld a new mentality for conducting business: “We need to help our neighbors succeed, then we succeed,” McCarthy said.
Swingle said DV3’s operations fall under the category of “exports” in a new way to think of small tourism niches.
“Dollars are coming into the state from exporting the Alaska experience,” he said. “Kudos to them for what they work so hard at.”
Exporting the Alaska experience
Food isn’t only about what’s on the plate for travelers, McCarthy said. All the DV3 businesses aim to export an intangible experience that travelers take home.
“It’s all about authenticity — the cutting edge of food and all these things. But it’s also what the background came from. The historic value is a huge part,” he said.
At their newest endeavor, the 49th State Brewing Co. in the home of the former Snow Goose in downtown Anchorage, DV3 purchased a 1918 building loaded with intrigue and past.
In the basement of a basement, a tunnel leading somewhere in the direction of the old Federal Building across Third Avenue ends abruptly. Why is it there?
“We don’t know. It’s covered with rebar,” Motyka said. “This was the Elks Lodge for a lot of years. We’re told that one out of every six pioneers who came to Alaska was a member of the Elk’s Lodge. The building had a bowling alley, three bars, a theatre where they had something called the Purple Bubble Ball.
“Some of the most influential men of the day met here. It’s a very fascinating historic building, built like a bomb shelter. It survived everything since 1918 and the 1964 Earthquake as well.”
After operating in Interior Alaska for the past 12 years, taking on an Anchorage business was a big plunge, Motyka and McCarthy said.
The property overlooking Cook Inlet and Sleeping Lady Mountain came with the brewery when Snow Goose owner Gary Klopfer sold it to them.
DV3 set to work transforming the 28,000-square foot interior to the 49th State Brewing Co. They went to Alaska materials artists for ambiance.
Grady Keyser built antler chandeliers for each room out of caribou antler sheds he gathered in Bush villages. Keyser fashioned a greeter’s desk for the front entrance from repurposed wood and antlers, something he’d never done before, said Maloney.
Just as the two men have a story for everything, their Anchorage establishment is a chapter in each corner you look. A whiskey wall behind the bar was built from old shed parts taken from Motyka’s childhood home by friend and artist Mark Wedekind.
River stone and slate stonework mural, walls, and the pizza oven were done by Mitch Fairweather. (He gathered the stones from creek beds and other Alaska places.) A chalk mural by Abbie Cleek shows the brewery process from beginning to bottling.
A large format photograph Front Range Mural by Charlie Renfro took several months to capture — and permission from the owners of downtown’s tall buildings.
While an older Alaska is plenty represented, the 21st century is as well. Plug-ins for laptops and other digital equipment are beneath the bar. An interactive screen allows patrons to say what beer they’re drinking through their phone.
Trending on jobs
It takes a staff of 250 to run the Anchorage 49th State in the summer. It takes another 400 to fill jobs at the Denali and Healy businesses. They hire from their own website at Denali Visions 3000 Jobs and from walk-ins.
“We’re an entry level employer and so we are training them and helping them in the direction we’re going. But today’s young people are looking for more than a paycheck in a job. They are looking for something that defines them or this chapter in their lives,” McCarthy said.
Being on top of trends that energize the business also draws new employees.
That means training them in the hospitality trade, as it’s envisioned by Motyka and McCarthy, to see fellow employees “as a family that is also a team.” McCarthy interviews chefs through the “stage” process; a full day’s pay to work alongside him showing them how they cook. If each side likes the other, there’s a hire.
Passing on their “Alaska” entrepreneurial philosophy is another training tool.
“If you break down on the side of the road someone else will be there to help you. Our unique relationship with others is you try to be savvy with things you learn in a big city and combine with what you learn about Alaska hospitality,” Motyka said.
A case in modeling that concept came a short time ago when a restaurant down the street found its liquor license permit hadn’t been filed in time for an event. 49th State Brewery came to the rescue by hosting their event at the restaurant.
“This is a competitor, but looking at the greater good of downtown business success, we wanted to help,” McCarthy said.
As for winning the Small Business Person of the Year Award 2017, the men say it validates their vision in a powerful affirmation.
“At the Washington, D.C. awards, something they said was very powerful,” McCarthy said. “They said ‘you spend your life thanking all the employees working for you, and now it’s our turn to thank you for doing for our country.’”
Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech about the importance of small businesses as a critical block in the American economy. The president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, also gave a speech on entrepreneurship. All politics were set aside during the April 30 to May 6 National Small Business Week in D.C.
“In hospitality we love everyone,” McCarthy said. “We don’t talk religion and politics in restaurants and bars. They talked about how we are the backbone, that small business drives America.”
“It’s a tremendous honor especially after growing up in Anchorage, being able to write the next 20 years of Alaska history,” Motyka said.
Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].