Mary and Jim Erickson, owners of The Office Bar in Hoonah, bought the business in 2003. In 2006, Esquire magazine named it the "Best Bar in America."
Mary and Jim Erickson, owners of The Office Bar in Hoonah, bought the business in 2003. In 2006, Esquire magazine named it the "best bar in America."
Story last updated at 4/2/2014 - 5:52 pm
The Office Bar, a Tlingit-owned establishment in Hoonah, got its name when a friend of owners Jim and Mary Erickson gave up on working elsewhere one afternoon soon after they opened. She brought her papers in, spread them out ... and a bar name was born.
Over the past 11 years, that name has traveled widely.
In 2006, Esquire magazine named The Office Bar the best bar in America. In the description, Juneau-raised writer Chuck Thompson called it "a temple for out-of-towners on the way out and locals on payday ... spreading wealth the ritual way."
"There was just something about the environment of the bar and the people that he liked about it," Mary said. "When they called to get the OK to publish the story, we thought it was some friends playing a prank on us."
They've had celebrities stop by the bar, as well: one famous chef ate two bowls of Mary's chowder.
"It was a tense moment for a while," Jim joked.
The Ericksons were both born and raised in Hoonah.
They officially bought the business, which has been locally owned and operated since the 1970s, from Mary's uncle in April 2003. Since then, they've overhauled pretty much everything. The only original thing left in the building is the ceiling over the bar itself.
"All our lives, we've been fishermen and did fairly well," Jim said. "But the trouble with fishing is in the wintertime, you go broke."
The seasonal nature of much employment in Hoonah means their year-round business has a seasonal clientele. Locals are always there, of course. Crab season brings crab fishermen. Summer brings tourists and cruise ship employees.
"The crew on the ships have been the kindest to us," Jim said, adding that cruise ships have been one of the biggest positives for their business. "We get a lot of people that walk into town and want an Alaskan beer, which we're able to provide."
One of the couple's favorite - and most profitable - aspects of their business is the crab feast, which begins around summer solstice and continues each day the cruise ships are in town during the summer, both for tourists and locals. They buy Dungeness crab from a fisherman in Gustavus and sell them whole. They've been doing it for almost 10 years now.
"We're able to support a couple of different crab fishermen at times," Jim said.
"It's amazing how fast this place will fill up and how long they'll stand there and wait for a table," Mary said.
They also have a wine tasting every year. "Everybody looks forward to it," Mary said. "It kind of just breaks the routine."
Regulations do put a bit of a cramp in things, they said. They're not allowed to serve fresh fish, for example: in order to do so, they'd need 14 sinks - three more than they have now, Mary said.
"It's just beyond me," she said. "I grew up eating and preparing this stuff all my life. I'm still alive. My kids are still alive. ... You've got to look at where we're at, who we are and what we do. In a nutshell, I don't like somebody from Tennessee telling me how to cook my fish."
"Our issue is we just don't have the room," Jim said.
They also face small-town Southeast obstacles: the cost of fuel and electricity is high. When they first bought the bar, the electric bill was around $2,000 per month, they said. They installed LED lights, weatherized the windows and doors, put timers on the beer coolers, and use electricity more sparingly. They now pay around $600 per month.
Shipping costs are expensive, too. Beer first gets shipped to Seattle, then to Juneau, then to Hoonah.
"It's just being where we're at," Mary said. "If we had a barge landing, we would be able to get a barge straight up here."
In a challenge they've mastered, the couple got much more familiar with computers than they used to be.
"I would call my daughters all the time," Mary said. "'I screwed this up, can you fix this?' ... It's still a learning experience."
They'd like to expand, possibly into the property next door, or toward the water. But for that, Jim said, they need to correspond with the Army Corps of Engineers.
"It's a constant battle," Jim said. "It's always somebody you've got to deal with."
They'd also like to put in a grill.
One thing they provide benefits others in Hoonah, as well: fundraising. Donated money hangs from the ceiling. At a certain point, the bar matches it and donates it. Recently, they donated it to the local senior center, which bought a TV. They've also donated it to schoolchildren for their travel fund.
"We're just a locally owned business trying to make it in the world of business," Mary said. "I think our little business speaks for itself. We have a good reputation, and we're noted for our hospitality."