Ken Smith/Turnagain Times
Leslie and Seth Cottrell took over as managers of the Inn at Whittier in December.
By Ken Smith
The Inn at Whittier offers one of the most beautiful and dramatic views in all of Alaska, positioned on the mouth of the city’s harbor on Prince William Sound.
From their rooms, guests can see out onto the Head of the Bay where steep mountains drop into the ocean, and a vast array of wildlife that migrate to the Sound each summer.
In addition to the rooms, the dining room and bar also offer patrons views of the Sound – a backdrop that few dining facilities in Anchorage or the state can match.
Now the new husband and wife management team of Leslie and Seth Cottrell are looking to introduce a dining experience to match the natural splendor that surrounds the inn.
The Alaskan couple took over as managers in December, and it’s been a sharp learning curve for them, given that this is their first time running an inn.
The elaborately designed wooden structure of the Inn at Whittier is 26,000 square feet, with three floors that feature 25 lavishly appointed guest rooms, including two townhouse suites. In addition, the dining room encompasses two levels with a winding staircase to the second floor. The bar features a marble counter with large windows where patrons can sit, sip a drink and eat while looking out onto the bay.
However, since its opening in 2004, the inn has struggled to live up to the expectations that such an extravagant waterfront dining facility should offer.
Seth and Leslie hope to change all that.
The couple, both 38 years old, have been living in Kenai for the last four years. Seth worked as an aviation technician and Leslie worked as a waitress at St. Elias Brewing Company in Soldotna while taking care of their two children.
Seth also has a family connection to the inn – his father David Cottrell is the President of United Companies, Inc., which owns the inn; Sea Lion Corporation is the parent company that bought it in 2009.
“We’ve been looking the last few years to buy a lodge,” said Seth. “I worked as a hunting and fishing guide for a number of years, and that’s how I met Leslie down at Sand Point. We thought this would be a great way to get some good experience before we bought our own lodge.”
The inn has gone through several managers the past few years, and hiring and maintaining experienced staff has been a challenge, especially in the kitchen, and that has made it difficult for the inn to remain profitable.
In the summertime rooms are typically full. The real challenge is filling the dining room, especially during the winter, and the key to that is attracting Alaskan patrons, said Seth.
“We’re an Alaskan owned company, and it’s never been represented by Alaskans,” he said. “The managers were not Alaskans, they generally came from the Lower 48. So that’s what we’re selling – owned by Alaskans and operated by Alaskans, and our target is the Alaskans. It’s the Alaskans who will come down here in the wintertime, and we’re trying to get them to come down in the summertime, and then they’ll come down in the winter. We’re going to try and make this a destination restaurant like the Double Musky (in Girdwood). But in the past, the Alaskans have been stepped over, and they’ve (previous managers) concentrated strictly on the tourists. The tourists are great in the summertime, but you’re only going to get their money one time. If you get the Alaskans, who also come down in the winter, you get their business multiple times.”
The first step to attracting year-round local business to the dining room was to bring in a top chef. Seth feels he’s done that by hiring a new executive chef, Mick Hug, who also has experience as a chef at fine dining restaurants in Anchorage.
Hug started his own restaurant in 2003, Mick’s at the Inlet in Anchorage. He left in 2009 to relocate to New Mexico and Colorado where he worked as a consultant including a job at the Stanley Hotel in Colorado – the inspiration for Stephen King’s book “The Shining.”
The 48-year-old Hug returned to Alaska to oversee a challenging but rewarding job as an executive chef at the Inn at Whittier.
He began working last week and revamped the menu with an array of local seafood dishes as well as a variety of eclectic dishes.
“We see this as a great opportunity,” said Seth. “Mick has a lot more experience in operating a restaurant than we do. I believe the restaurant is the real key to increasing revenue. The inn is only 25 rooms, and in the summertime that fills up very quick, but you have to have that restaurant to help sustain some income in the winter months if you’re going to stay open.”
In addition to Hug, a new sous chef was hired from Girdwood, Ricky Medeiros. He’s worked with Hug at his restaurant, as well as Jens’ in Anchorage, and they’ve both worked at Seven Glaciers restaurant at Alyeska Resort, where Hug opened it along with well-known chef Al Levinsohn in 1994.
The menu is ambitious, admits Hug, and he’ll likely scale it down over the next several weeks.
“Our real ambition is to get to the level of a Seven Glaciers, that’s the market that we want to put this place in,” he said. “We want to specialize in real food made from scratch. Our focus is on the real and expertly prepared. I like to call it ‘progressive Americana.’ Like the other night, we made a macaroni and cheese, but with King Crab, white truffle, roasted tomato and wilted greens.”
The full menu is gradually being introduced, but patrons can expect to see it in its entirety around the first week of June. And what they can expect is impressive.
The menu starts with breakfast plates such as house smoked salmon, breakfast antipasto, and brushetta ricotta, apple pancakes, waffles and toast, eggs benedicto, smothered burrito, steak and eggs, polenta sausage, ham n’ cheese omelet and the Inn biscuits n’ gravy.
Some of the lunch menu items featured are halibut sandwich, beef short rib dip, burger royale, roasted chicken salad, smoked salmon cobb salad, grilled shrimp, and a caesar salad. Homestyle favorites include fish n chips, macaroni and cheese, chicken n’ chorizo chimichanga.
The bar menu also is impressive with Buffalo corndogs, King Crab tots, beef short rib dip, lamb ribs, burger royale and halibut sandwiches, to name a few. Starters offered are King Crab pancakes, stuffed oysters, Mick and Rick’s raw bar platter with an array of raw seafood, and Hudson Valley Foie Gras.
Entrees top off the menu featuring lemon pappardelle, and seafood dishes like blackened prawns, seared jumbo scallops, pan crispy salmon and seared halibut.
For meat lovers there’s a New York strip and beef short rib, venison, and on the lighter side, asparagus tempura roll.
To top it all of are the desserts: Philly cheesecake, crème brulee, cabernet poached pear, carrot cake pudding, and gianduia and gelato.
Needless to say, this is not a menu patrons of the Inn at Whittier have ever seen before. It will certainly have to be refined, but if chef Hug and his staff can pull this off, the inn would position itself as one of the premiere restaurants not only in Anchorage but the entire state.
And if operating a fine dining restaurant is not enough, Hug’s also providing catering service. The Sealife Center in Seward already booked them for 150 plates and another job is in line for June with Phillips 26 Glacier Cruise and a buffet for 250 patrons.
“I’ve got some proposals out; they’re calling me,” said Hug. “I’ve got good people working for me, and a new dining room manager who is a wiz. We’ve got a good bar manager, sous chef, and floor manager, so I think we’ll do okay.”
Aside from the dining room and guest rooms, another source of revenue for the inn is weddings. Seth is being cautious with the amount of weddings they book because they take up the entire inn, so he will limit them to one per month, mostly on Saturdays. The meeting room is also popular for conferences, another untapped source of revenue, he said, which they will concentrate on selling in the winter months.
The restaurant hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays, and on weekends breakfast will be served starting at 7 a.m.; the bar lounge opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m.
Reservations are not required for the restaurant except for parties of eight or more. The telephone number at the Inn at Whittier is (907) 472-3200.