New management promises old Tustumena Lodge

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion The Tustumena Lodge is under new management and trying to entice business back into the restaurant.

The sign out front reads: “Locals, get your asses back in here!”

“That’s politically correct Alaskan dialect,” said the Tustumena Lodge’s new owner, Ed “Yankee” Wehrstein.

It’s strong language but a definitive statement: Kasilof’s Tustumena Lodge is open for business, and, actually, locals are welcome this time, Wehrstein said.

“That’s just how we talk up here,” he said. “‘Hey, get you ass in here.’”

The grand reopening for the bar that used to be so much more than a bar is scheduled for Aug. 30 and 31. The bar is also called the “Big T” or “The T.”

Although defunct for eight years, Wehrstein plans to revitalize the bar.

The new owner has already invested $70,000 and 24-hours-a-day of work for two and a half weeks in repairs. The former owner, who most use unfriendly words to describe, had trashed the establishment, Wehrstein said. Absolutely ruined it.

Since the bar reopened July 15, Wehrstein has cycled through staff, trying to find cooks, waitresses and bartenders that won’t “piss off” the customers. They have to know just how the locals like it, he said.

It’s taking some time, but the bar began bustling quickly: Three days after reopening, Wehrstein had to shut the kitchen down because the demand was to much, he said.

Wehrstein will also return the bar as Kasilof residents had loved it. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “it’s the local’s bar.”

The free meals, all the community events, even the cardboard plaque containing mug shots of those that used to frequent the bar — all of it is coming back, he said.

Except one thing.

The famous hats are gone forever, Suzie Cook said.

Suzie and her husband, John Cook, were the bar’s original owners. They bought the establishment in 1989 when they committed to a year-round life in Kasilof. They had been snowbirds previously, Suzie said.

But the two sold the bar in 2005.

Duane Lafleur, a soon to be very disliked Canadian, was the recipient.

Lafleur was the one who threw out the hats when he moved in — all 27,264 of the Guinness Book of World Record famous hats that used to line the bar’s ceiling and walls. All gone, Suzie said. Gone forever.

In hindsight, she said she and John had made a bad call selling the bar to Lafluer. He certainly didn’t manage it the way Wehrstein promises he will.

“It was a real mess,” Suzie said.

Before Lafleur’s management, the bar was more than a bar, more than a motel and certainly more than an income for the Cooks.

For 16 years, the Cooks held free Thanksgiving dinners, twice a week prime rib meals, weekly pool nights, annual scavenger hunts, Halloween carnivals twice a year, “quadrathalons” — a combination sport of volley ball and croquet — and anything else they could hatch to bring Kasilof together.

On the bar’s closing night, Suzie and John served 1,000 free tacos.

“It was pretty much the hub of the community,” Nancy Manns said, “whether they drank or not.”

Manns worked for 10 years with the Cooks at the bar, some busy summer nights serving 200 dinners in three hours.

Manns also met her husband at the bar, and the Cooks later married them on the beach in Homer.

For the Cooks, their patrons were their family. Suzie and John watched them marry, and the two watched others divorce. John would even call some regulars his kids, Suzie said.

“They were four (years old),” Suzie said, “and now they’re 40. They have kids now.”

Before Lafleur’s ownership, the “Big T” was the corner of Kasilof. The building was even a registered disaster shelter, and the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce would refer tourists to the building, Suzie said.

After Lafleur’s ownership, and after he had filed bankruptcy and fled the state, the bar became a sad place, Suzie said.

Lafleur had promised, in a 2005 Clarion article, that he would maintain the “Big T” as the community had loved it. He said: “It’s a unique bar where everybody knows everybody, and there’s a lot of community involvement.”

“I intend to keep everything the same and just run it like the Cooks ran it,” he said, “and hopefully I can build on their success.”

The day Lafleur bought the bar, Manns quit.

Shortly after, Kasilof turned its head on the bar. Lafleur had told the residents he didn’t need them, and he didn’t want their business.

Suzie’s only phone number for Lafleur rang through to another man’s voicemail, so Lafleur was not available for comment at the time of publication. But Lafleur’s foreclosure notice speaks for the six-figure debt the man left behind.

In the notice filed in the Clarion June 29, 2012, Lafleur owed the following:

- $100,000 to Lloyd Banning;

- $1,840.81 to CACV of Colorado, LLC.;

- $4,076.58 in taxes to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development;

- $26,040.19 in taxes to the Internal Revenue Service;

- $30,000 to Daniel Wagner;

- $4,456.63 in taxes to the Kenai Peninsula Borough;

- $3,413.57 to the Alaska National Insurance Company;

- $3,014.10 to Ninilchik Charters and Michael Flores;

- $548.90 to Mark Osterman;

- $2,552.38 to Suburban Propane;

- $39,946.46 to the Department of Revenue Child Support Enforcement Division;

- $24,000 to Ardell and Jackie Wolsey;

- $1,614.75 in taxes to the Alaska Division of Employment Security; and

- an additional $170,489.01 as a breach of the obligations under the deed of trust.

The foreclosure list continues, but the last few lines could not fit on the Clarion’s scanner. Lafleur’s debt was, in total, $411,993.38.

“He just conned everybody he could into getting money,” Suzie said.

Lafleur was always late making his payments. And when doctors diagnosed John with cancer, Lafleur stopped his payments all together, Suzie said.

“One of the last things John said to me was, ‘Don’t let that “blank” get away with it,’” Suzie said.

Lafleur filed bankruptcy in July 2012, Suzie said.

Suzie promises it will all be different with Wehrstein.

Those who have recommendations for the management should email Wehrstein at bigtlodge@outlook.com. He wants feedback.

Dan Schwartz can be reached at daniel.schwartz@peninsulaclarion.com.

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