The romantic notion of owning an historic Alaska roadhouse became a reality for young Trisha Costello in 1996 with the help of a personal loan from her dad.
Over the decades since, she has kept the Talkeetna Roadhouse open year-round, paid her father back in full, provided jobs in a community of some 800 people, and learned a lot about what it takes to prosper as an entrepreneur with a passion for Alaska and the community of Talkeetna.
Costello is proud to be on a list of only seven previous owners of the roadhouse, beginning in the territory days and ushering it into the present. She feels lucky to be among the custodians who have shepherded the roadhouse through the changing eras of Alaska’s development. She reflected: “The idea of a roadhouse was appealing. It made sense. It is a place where travelers would stop for a decent cup of coffee, a warm bowl of soup, meet other folks to find out how the trail was north and south, share stories, and find a good place to sleep. That’s what I thought I was getting into.”
After embarking on her journey, Costello quickly realized she had primarily gotten into the restaurant business, and had a steep learning curve.
“I really didn’t have that kind of experience,” Costello admitted. “I didn’t have a business degree or restaurant management experience. I had cooked for employees…at the Denali park concession, but I didn’t have much experience. So I gratefully learned as the community grew. As tourism grew in Talkeetna, I grew with it.” That meant Costello spent her 30s and 40s running the Roadhouse business from behind the baking table.
“I was the early baker. Cinnamon rolls are kind of our thing and I did everything from scratch” Costello explained. “I pulled all of the old bread pans out of the barn. (They had been used back in the ‘50s and ‘60s). We started baking bread again from scratch. I taught myself recipes, started collecting recipes, and figured out what worked best as we went along. I spent a handful of years just being an entrepreneur, figuring it out as I went along, you know?”
“I think we remodeled the kitchen consecutively each year for the first 8 years. It was a lot more like a “home kitchen” when I first got here. Even today I say we play the Hokey Pokey; we have one foot in a commercial kitchen and one foot in Grandma’s kitchen.”
By 1998 and 1999 many of the large tourism lodges opened up around Talkeetna and changed the local dynamic.
Some say tourism doesn’t contribute in a big way to the Alaska economy because big corporations run the industry and invest very little–meer scraps– back into the community. How do you see our tourism industry beyond your place in it?
“Well, I definitely keep all my scraps here, right in this town! There is a lot of money that comes in and a lot of money that goes out,” Costello explained, “but I believe a lot of those big players are very conscious of their footprint here and contribute a lot. Alaska doesn’t have a lot of people to pull from for the workforce here. It would be great if a lot of the tourism jobs could be filled by people who actually live here. A lot more money would then stay in the community.”
What tricks have you learned for keeping a viable business year-round?
“I call this the accordion style of doing business” she explained. “I had to learn a painful lesson when I bought my dad out after he had helped me with the initial capital to purchase the property and business. He was not an on-site owner and looked at it from a business perspective, while I looked at it from a community perspective. My commitment to keep the place open year-round wasn’t something he understood. He saw that in the winter it really didn’t make any money. In fact, we still don’t make any money in the winter but we don’t lose as much anymore!”
“Maybe that is part of what has kept me engaged—that challenge. How do you make it work in the summer; bulk up to accommodate all of the people who come here in a community like ours during the busy season, and be efficient so you can still provide open doors without draining all resources. Then you also consider the fact that our historic 100-year old building requires maintenance and upkeep. And it just seems to work like an accordion. There is an ebb and flow. It is not for the faint of heart, but the years have clicked by!”
“Being in business means being innovative. Also, I believe in the Roadhouse as a place that is always open and serves as a community living room. It takes me 50 people in the summer to make this place work staffing-wise. And I keep 20 people on through the winter. In a town of 800 people, that’s not too bad! That’s 20 jobs for the community that I am proud to provide.”
In addition to being an important employer in the small town of Talkeetna, The historic Roadhouse has notably become a place where mountain climbers from all over the world come to get a last great breakfast before taking on the largest mountain in North America.