Owner makes King Mountain Lodge more than just burger joint

Half a decade ago, registered nurse Judy Nix was helping people die with dignity at the Hospice of Anchorage, a job that carries with it a certain amount of stress.

On the weekends, she would get away by spending time at what she called her "hiding place," King Mountain Lodge at Mile 76 on the Glenn Highway.

She never dreamed she’d end up buying the place, but at the urging of friends, that’s exactly what she did in August 1995.

Nix soon learned that she couldn’t run a lodge and be a nurse at the same time.

"I found out I had to be here 24 hours a day, eight days a week," she said.

That’s because the lodge is much more than a place to buy a burger or a beer. It’s the center of a community that stretches from Sutton to the Matanuska Glacier. "In winter, we’re the only phone along a 55-mile stretch of the highway," Nix said. "A lot of people don’t have wells, and we have clean water. I share it with everybody."

If someone in the area gets hurt, they head towards the lodge. Nix said she’s seen her share of compound fractures and lacerations -- even heart attacks.

"I’m still nursing. I just don’t get paid," she joked.

After owning the lodge for a couple of years, Nix realized she needed help managing the place, someone who could do everything from cook to tend bar -- along with some not-so-pleasant tasks. So she placed an ad for a general manager/chef and got a quick response from Darryl Dean.

Dean said he could cook and he could tend bar, but the clincher was when Nix asked him if he would be willing to clean toilets if necessary. When he told Nix he would, he got the job.

And Dean certainly can cook. His resume includes kitchen manager at Simon & Seafort’s Saloon & Grill in Anchorage, sous chef at the now-defunct Elevation 92 and catering work on the North Slope. He spent several years as regional manager for Restaurants Unlimited, a chain in the Pacific Northwest, where he was in charge of opening new restaurants.

So with that kind of background, why did he choose to work at King Mountain Lodge?

"It’s fun out here," Dean said. "I had worked for a corporation that wanted 6 percent more revenue every year, and I wasn’t happy. I got tired of working that way."

Dean is also in charge of promoting the lodge. He’s got a special event scheduled there every other weekend until October. On June 16, for instance, nearly 200 people showed up for the so-called "March Madness" celebration, put on by a group of local property owners. (It was first held in March last year, but it snowed, so this year it moved to June -- without a name change.)

Coming up on July 3 will be a free barbecue to mark the death of Jim Morrison, the legendary leader of the Doors rock group. Dean said this quirky approach works well, generating lots of visitors, all of it through word of mouth.

Those visitors patronize the bar and often buy meals before or after the main event, generating badly needed revenue. Nix said creating successful summer events is the key to the lodge’s survival.

"We get behind in winter and try to get caught up by the end of summer," she said.

That job hasn’t been any easier over the last four years, as major reconstruction of the Glenn Highway north of Palmer has dramatically reduced visitors to the lodge.

"People have told me they’re not coming here because the road is so terrible," she said. "We’ve suffered."

But Nix is optimistic that things will pick up once the road construction is finished. "I want to make a living instead of just survive," she said.

07/01/2001 - 8:00pm