Running a restaurant is not a simple job anywhere, but in Haines it’s especially difficult. Less than half of the restaurants in town stay open in the winter. Some days, only one or two eateries are open. An inconsistent winter economy hurts year-round restaurants, but the lack of year-round restaurants could also hurt an important part of the economy: tourism.
Christy Tengs owns the Bamboo Room Restaurant and Pioneer Bar with her husband. Last winter, the local Chamber of Commerce asked Tengs to talk about the state of the restaurant industry at an economic summit. She wrote a letter, titled “No Summer Vacation.”
“Owning a restaurant is like being caught in a trap and debating every day whether to chew your leg off,” Tengs read from her letter. “Owning a restaurant in Haines is like being caught in a trap and being toothless.”
Those words come from 23 years of experience. When Tengs took over the Bamboo from her father, she says she didn’t realize how challenging it would be.
“The year we took over, both mills shut down,” Tengs said. “I remember the very first winter…I went $40,000 in debt. That was a rude awakening. I always thought my dad socked away a bunch of money in the summer but it turned out he put it all back in in the winter and more.”
That pattern keeps repeating. Tengs says the money the restaurant earns in the summer, they use up in the winter, when costs to heat and maintain the place are high and revenue from customers is low.
“Did I make a profit in January and February? Probably not, generally no. You know, those months you’re sliding down,” said Mary Jean Sebens, who owns Mountain Market.
Mountain Market is a combined natural foods store, liquor store and café. Sebens says when she thinks about the small number of eateries in Haines, she has conflicting feelings.
“It’s true, it’s a catch-22, if there were more restaurants we wouldn’t have as much businesses,” she said. “But on the other hand, just as a person who lives here, I find it challenging myself to go out to dinner — there’s just a few choices.”
Tengs and Sebens say they keep their businesses open in the winter because it would be logistically difficult to shut down and reopen each year. And they feel a commitment to their employees and customers. So each winter, they lose money, and then hope to make it back in the summer.
The slow winter economy hurts restaurants. But it also goes the other way. The small number of restaurants could hurt winter tourism.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Cheryl McRoberts said, when thinking back to last November. Her organization – The American Bald Eagle Foundation – hosted the annual Bald Eagle Festival. She says there were a few days when not a single restaurant was open. Mountain Market’s café and two grocery stores were the only places to get food.
“I can’t have 300 people come and nowhere for them to eat,” McRoberts said. “Someone complained that the only place to eat was the hot box at Olerud’s [grocery store].”
McRoberts says tourists were confused, asking ‘how are there no restaurants?’ She’s worried it’ll effect the number of attendees next year.
“It spreads like wildfire,” she said. “You know, ‘you can get a room but there’s nowhere to eat.’ It’s eventually going to be a problem.”
More consistent winter tourism could help more restaurants stay open year-round. But Haines Borough Tourism Director Leslie Ross says the small number of restaurants and hotels open puts a limit on how many winter visitors Haines can host.
“It’s like the chicken and the egg, we can’t promote and put on more events without having the businesses open,” Ross said. “So it’s asking the businesses to take the risk with us. ‘We’re going to try to do this, will you guys try to stay open as well?'”
Ross says when she looks at bringing tourism events to Haines, one of the first questions is: will there be enough restaurants open to feed people?
“Putting on events here it definitely effects what we can do,” she said. “We have to make sure we can feed and house everyone. This Freeride event is a perfect example. We had one restaurant that said they weren’t gonna be open, and it impacts us a lot in the planning process, making sure we can feed everybody.”
The Freeride World Tour is an international big mountain ski and snowboard competition. More than 100 athletes and organizers came to Haines for the competition’s very first Alaska stop. There were three restaurants open, plus Mountain Market’s café.
On the Friday afternoon when most of the Freeride visitors arrived, the Bamboo Room and Pioneer Bar had a sign hanging outside that said “Freeride hours: Open all day all week from 7 a.m. Welcome!” About 15 people sat inside eating, drinking and playing pool.
Christy Tengs says she hopes more events like this will come to Haines, especially in the winter.
“These kind of events have such an outreach around the world that it could bring more people to Haines and help us all the way around,” she said.
Sebens says restaurant options aren’t only important for tourism numbers. It’s something that could help keep residents here year-round as well.
“I think for the overall well-being of the community and what draws people here, having a well-rounded assortment of eating establishments would be better in the long run.”