The Stowaway Café closed its doors on Sunday, Sept. 23, after 18 years in business.
Stowaway chefs, from left to right, Dylan Healy, Brian Mcmamee and Eric Wolner pause during a break between lunch and dinner rushes on one of the last weekends of the restaurant.
The Stowaway Wings, top, and the Peppered Prawns were two popular appetizers at the restaurant.
Story last updated at 9/26/2012 - 2:37 pm
Making people feel good, loved and appreciated is Kim Long's forte. Long, 52, is the founder of Stowaway Café, a restaurant on the waterfront of Skagway that ended its 18 years of operation on Sunday, Sept. 23. It's rather unfair to call the establishment a restaurant. The Stowaway was a home, the employees considered each other family, diners were treated with a passionate level of hospitality and the quality of the food was a novelty.
People came from Whitehorse and Juneau to dine at the Stowaway, cruise ship passengers on second tours would revisit and Skagway locals would make mad dashes if there was a staff opening. Why?
Because of Long, known to her staff and the locals as Kimmy. Long strongly believes in the power of positive reinforcement.
"I think it's really important for people to feel appreciated," Long said. "People respond much better when you notice what they do that's good."
This relatively simple yet unfortunately rare practice in businesses was noticeably effective at the Stowaway.
The weekend before the Stowaway's closing I took a ferry up from Juneau for a last meal. I walked straight from the ferry terminal to the restaurant, arriving between the lunch and dinner rushes. I felt like I was coming home from college after a first semester away. I was greeted by Rosalinda Basso, the manager. Basso had a red bob of hair and a clear devotion to the restaurant, her coworkers and customers.
"It's been an institution," Basso said. "Any major birthday party, major event, this is where locals come and celebrate. ... It feels like a family. I'm not just saying this because I work here."
Her sentiments were mirrored with every other staff member, including four cooks and two servers. They all loved their jobs and expressed a true devotion to the quality of the food and to providing an inviting experience for their customers. Yet none of them harbored any bitter feelings that they will now have to find other work.
This can be attributed to Long's creation of a positive work environment. When she started the restaurant she had a long history of working in the food and beverage industry. The traditional barrier between the back of the house (the kitchen staff), and the front of the house (the servers, hosts and managers) wasn't necessary, Long thought, and prevented team cohesion.
But if you have any experience in the restaurant industry or watch any of the abundance of culinary television reality shows, you'll know that friendly discourse between the two sections of restaurant staff isn't par for the course.
"This is the only restaurant I've ever worked at where the kitchen staff hasn't yelled at me for a mistake," lunch server Patty Fecteau said.
Of the kitchen staff Fecteau observed, "They really work hard. If you see them in action they're like a football team. They read each other; they're in synch with each other. It's amazing. They just know."
Hawk Miller has been the sous chef at the Stowaway for over a decade.
"This is one of the few restaurants where we all understand we're a team, from the dishwasher to the owner, no matter what; if someone needs help than we help," Miller said. "It makes it very easy to work here. The owners do a very good job of giving an atmosphere of wanting to come to work."
Eric Wolner, the head lunch cook this past summer reflected similar sentiments.
"It's been a great experience," Wolner said. "It's really comfortable coming in. I find it easy to work here because it's a pleasurable place to be: the people, the attitude, the feedback from customers. You can't get much better."
Another lunch cook, Brian Mcmamee, said his experience cooking at the Stowaway has set his standards of the environment of his workplace too high to move on.
"I'll probably retire," the 29-year-old said.
But it's not just a heightened level of respect between the cooks and the servers that Long set out to achieve. Her frustration, 18 years ago, was that the food service staff in general is viewed as second class. There just seems to be a general assumption that restaurant staff members are uneducated subordinate laborers.
"I thought there could be more respect," Long said, describing her mindset leading up to starting her business. "Food and bar service people are so multi-talented and multi-faceted, but they're treated like they're lower class. I thought it could be something different."
Long moved to Skagway in 1982 and worked at the Red Onion Saloon for 10 years before bidding to lease an empty parcel of sea-front land owned by the City of Skagway.
"People were telling me I shouldn't tell anyone," Long recalls of the bidding process. "I should be sneaky."
Whether she heeded the advice or not is unclear, though the day she went to sign for the lease there was another challenger.
Her idea was to build a waterfront-style house structure, to culture a cozy atmosphere away from the slightly claustrophobic center of town. Out-bidding her lease challenger, she was able to do just that, and lucky for Long, one of her brothers happened to be an architect.
In the spring of 1994, Long's two brothers and mother arrived in Skagway to help with the building process. The brother of one of Long's friends moved up from Oregon to spend the summer.
"He volunteered a day or two a week to bang nails," Long said. The nail-banger buckled to Long's aura, and they developed a romantic relationship. With so many visitors helping to build the Stowaway, Long's house was full, so she and Jim Long had a fair excuse to steal away and bed down at the fledgling structure.
Within 60 days "we went from nothing to operating a business," Long said.
She gives a lot of credit to a man who goes by "Hilbo." Long said her initial thought was that she would be the main cook. "I wanted to be able to cook everything, so I could be versatile in every process. That didn't happen at all."
Hillary Craig, or Hilbo, is a Vietnam veteran with a passion for cooking.
"I just called to tell him what I was doing," Long said. "He was a very crazy man with passion, and he just said 'I'm coming up,' and he took the menu to a second level. Hilbo and I just sat up and wrote and rewrote until we came up with what we wanted."
Mariculture was barely sprouting in the early 1990s, and many of Skagway's restaurants weren't serving fresh fish.
"You couldn't have a fresh piece of halibut or salmon in town unless you caught it," Long said. "It was a transition time with food."
Her plans for menu items centered around fresh ingredients. Hilbo had brought up an old-fashioned "Fat Boy" smoker that the restaurant used for pork chops, ribs, chicken wings and tomatoes. Besides mesquite chips, a hunk of brown sugar was thrown into the smoker, tightly wrapped in foil. It caramelized and infused the smoking food with an additional element of flavor.
Hilbo helped the Longs through most of their first season. His personality resided on the menu until their closing day. For example, on the evening I visited Dylan Healy, a 28-year-old evening cook who has lived in Skagway since he was seven, was preparing white oval dishes with an assortment of quartered mushrooms and chunks of red bell peppers, tomatoes and onions. Healy is very charismatic, and stood excitedly over the dishes with an 8-inch spiked Mohawk explaining the preparation. Sliced kaffir lime leaves are added to the vegetables, Healy said, and mixed with a tamarind stock, a chili soybean paste, oyster sauce, sugar and Thai chili peppers. They're served over a piece of fried rockfish. Hilbo, inspired by his experiences in Southeast Asia, created the dish.
The other cooks are also encouraged to take some creative liberty and ownership of the dishes. Miller, who heralds from Texas, created the Shrimp Toast, an appetizer that was a number one seller on the menu. A mayonnaise-based shrimp mousse was mixed with parmesan, green onions, Tabasco sauce, lemon juice, and what was known as "good loving," a seasoning of salt, pepper and garlic, and spread onto thick slices of house-made bread and broiled. Miller was also the brains behind the Peppered Prawns. The prawns are served in the shell. But the prawns were served with a deep slice allowing for the rich Cajun pepper sauce to seep into the meat, and over a generous helping of additional sauce.
A former chef named Mary Sparks created the menu item that first lured me to the Stowaway in 2008. Sparks' Nasty Nutty Chocolate Truffle dessert is an ultimate indulgence. Miller was reluctant to say too much about it, but divulged the essentials: chocolate, butter, cream, rum and chunks of pecans were heated on the stovetop, and cooled in a rectangular dish. The concoction was frozen, and sliced, and served over a pool of vanilla custard. It was luscious, smooth and contained just a slight twang from the liquor.
Healy created a vegetarian dish, Roasted Mushroom Risotto Cakes, which quickly became a hot item. The cakes are made with a risotto base mixed with roasted button mushrooms, white wine, shallots, garlic, butter, cream, Parmesan and thyme and rosemary from the outdoor garden. The cakes were then breaded in panko crumbs, fried, and stacked with layers of thick smoked tomato vinaigrette and drizzled with a balsamic vinegar reduction. Like most items, they were served with a delicate edible flower picked from outside.
One of the things the staff repeatedly said was a source of pride for them was their accommodation to customers. Sometimes locals would come in and have their own idea of a dish they wanted to try. The kitchen staff would take a stab.
"I think the thing with the Stowaway that's different than most of the other establishments," Basso said, "Is that you could come in and say, 'I have a gluten problem, what can you fix me?' and they'll make a stir-fry, or a kid's item that's not on the menu. They're accommodating."
The respect and generous treatment of their customers is what Long stressed along her restaurant's nearly two decade journey.
Pints of beer were served in frozen glasses. Silverware followed specific placement. Where, on the table, would your hand most easily gravitate? That spot was right where she wanted the napkins. What utensil would you use first? That spoon would be on the far right side of the five-utensil set-up.
"I wanted people to take pride in the establishment," Long said. "I wanted people to feel embraced, that we were thinking about them every step of the way, that it was an experience."
Long loves mermaids. Mermaid paraphernalia covered most of the sea green walls. There was a distinct beach-house-meets-house-boat feel. Each table had unique salt and peppershakers, the size of medium Russian dolls. One set was painted with a basket of flowers; one set was the shape of small watermelons, another like carrot tops. A light switch covering had been carved from driftwood into the shape of a dolphin. Each bathroom was labeled with a sign, "Either-or, lock the door," instead of gender designation, and they contained books by Bradley Trevor: "The Blue Day Book, a lesson in cheering yourself up," and "Every Day is Christmas, living the holiday spirit throughout the year without damaging your health or driving everyone crazy." The pages contained fingerprints of Jimbo fry sauce, served with the popular Jimbo fries, specially seasoned house-cut russet potatoes created by Jim Long.
The restaurant was busy from the start. It went through an evolution; a covered porch was transformed into a heated solarium, the kitchen was expanded and Long converted a jelly closet in the main floor of the dining room into a private room.
"It's a small town," Long explained, "And it's nice to be able to pull a curtain and not have to talk to everyone."
Jim is luckily quite handy, and, in addition to having worked a few summers as a cook at the Stowaway, he acted as the main fix-it man.
"Jim fixes machines like nobody's business," Long proudly said. Jasmine Viehe, a server at the Stowaway, explained that when she first started working Jim told her to note any loose screws and broken items. He's meticulous, Viehe said, and kept a high standard of order.
The menu also evolved, though some items were too popular to remove. The Bellissimo steak, a 14-ounce New York steak served with marinated portabella mushrooms and gorgonzola cheese, for example, and Bubbly Butt-n-Brie, pan-fried nuggets of fresh halibut dusted with flour, nestled in brie cheese and broiled with wine and cream, couldn't be removed for fear of a town demonstration of despair.
After a break from the afternoon tour and interviews, I returned to the blue building surrounded by nasturtiums, honey suckles, fresh mint, pansies, columbines, rhubarb and strawberry plants and raspberry and rose bushes. The 18-year old Fat Boy Smoker puffed from behind the kitchen. Viehe was clad in a mustard colored cardigan, black top and a gray wool skirt. She told me a bit about everything I ordered. The chicken wings were first smoked in the Fat Boy, and coated with something called Sparky sauce, a breathtaking jerk seasoning created by Sparks. Bits of brilliant orange carrot swam in a pureed squash broth in the acorn squash bisque, mixed with cream, milk, butter and a traditional blackening seasoning created by Hilbo. The special that evening was a choice of halibut or salmon served in a glace de poisson, a laborious sauce made by the head chef, Tim Schaefer. To make the sauce Schaffer reduced a halibut stock for three days, and blended in wine, butter, lemon juice and cream.
After the last bite, maybe ever, of that wonderful dessert known as "The Nasty," it was after 10 p.m., and the restaurant was empty, save Viehe.
"I always remember that every guest needs special treatment," Long said.
The Stowaway is gone; however the Longs are entertaining a cook book that, if published, will undoubtedly be on the shelves of many Southeast Alaskans' bookshelves. The pages of my copy will be filled with chocolate fingerprints.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.