It quickly becomes apparent that it is hard to separate the woman from the business -- hard to separate Sally Hoskins from her pride and joy, Sal's Klondike Diner in Soldotna.
No doubt you have driven by the Sterling Highway restaurant, your eye catching the building's colorful face. You have likely tasted the food there, enjoying Hoskins' from-scratch recipes and tasty dishes. You also have probably delighted in the diner's collection of memorabilia, some taking you back to the days of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Chances are you know the bustling Sal's diner, but do you know Sal?
"Sal is just absolutely wonderful," says Nancy Yandell, Hoskins' assistant. "I think she is an amazing woman. Working for her is like being with family."
Hoskins agrees. And if her employees are family, then her customers count as extended family.
"My employees are my family," she says. "I care about the people who work for me. I care about my customers. I consider a lot of people in this area a part of my family."
Hoskins moved to Alaska from her home state of Idaho in 1975, beginning several businesses that included auction houses and gift shops before finally finding her niche in the restaurant business with the opening of the diner in 1978.
"I paid $325 a month rent and was worried I wouldn't be able to make that," Hoskins says. "My first day of business I grossed $43."
For Hoskins, business isn't about being famous or rich. It's about doing something she loves, something that helps fulfill her life. That passion, which has intensified throughout her lifetime, is cooking.
"Cooking is one of my first loves," she says. "It is something I have always loved to do, and doing it makes me happy."
Hoskins' circle of love is complete in the kitchen, either at home with her husband, Skip, or at work, where she has employed a variety of her family members, including four sons, a son-in-law, three daughters and 13 grandchildren.
Skip is retired, having spent his life working for the telephone company before settling down with Hoskins. The two were close friends for 14 years before they even dated. Hoskins says her husband eats better meals than her customers because she tends to be a "gourmet" in her kitchen at home.
When asked about her life outside of her businesses, which include Sal's Klondike Diner and Buckets Sports Grill in Soldotna, Hoskins says over the years it has been hard to tell the two apart.
"Everyone thinks the leading factor in my life is my businesses," she says. "My family is the most important thing in my life, though the business is right up there with them."
Her children have followed in their mother's entrepreneurial footsteps. Daughter Molly, who is now taking time from work to raise her family, was the owner of Molly's Flower Factory before it became Tammy's Flower Factory. Son Jay opened Jay's Painting Co. in Soldotna.
Another son, Andy, acts as general manager for Hoskins' businesses.
"I love working for my mom," he says. "When we first opened this place, I stood outside in the middle of June playing Frisbee with my friends. It was absolutely dead here. My mom turned it into what it is today. It was just me and her working the stoves then, and look what she has turned this into."
Hoskins' businesses have grown with the city of Soldotna.
"I remember when all of that area where Safeway was and all through here was nothing but fields," Andy says.
Hoskins says it was divine intervention that led her to start Sal's diner along the Sterling Highway where it now flourishes, despite a slew of competition, including several fast-food restaurants.
"I saw more cars on this road on Memorial Day then I had ever seen here before," she says. "I just knew I had to start a business here. I have to thank God for giving me direction, because I am not smart enough to have figured it out myself."
Over the years, the increasing number of competitors has been no cause for alarm.
"Every time a new place opens up around here people start saying that Sal's diner is going to go out of business," Andy says with a smile. "Sal's has been here for a long time, and it is going to be here even longer."
Hoskins views the competition with pragmatism.
"I sort of like it," she says. "It gives people a choice, and it gives us some variety around here."
You can easily tell Hoskins' interests go beyond family and business with just a glimpse at the interior and exterior of the diner. One of her passions runs as deep as some of Alaska's most colorful history.
"I just love the story of the Klondike days," she says. "Back when they discovered gold is such an interesting time for Alaska. I try to incorporate that into Sal's diner. It is like a hobby to me."
However, to Hoskins, everything in her life comes back to one place.
"Having a restaurant business is such a privilege," she says. "I can give my family a job if they need one, help put my grandchildren through college and help out the community."
And help the community she does.
It seems to be a well-known fact in Soldotna and the surrounding area that if someone is down on their luck, they can go to the diner for a little relief.
"It is pretty much a standing order around here that if someone looks like they really need nourishment, but don't have much money, then it's on the house," Molly says. "She is all heart, ask any of her employees and they will tell you that."
When all is said and done, Hoskins knows what has helped her and her businesses grow together -- the city she calls home.
"When I first opened this restaurant, a woman named Vera Howarth sent me down a centerpiece with a candle and flowers," Hoskins says. "She did it to welcome me to Soldotna, and she made me feel like I moved home.
"I really do think that spirit is still living on in Soldotna, they make you feel like you came home."
That spirit also is seen in a loyal customer base.
"We still have customers who have come in since our first day," says Andy. "They might complain about the food and complain about the service, but they really love this place. Some of them might even consider it home."
Although her specialties of down-home cooking and old-fashioned customer service seem to come from the past, Hoskins still keeps an eye on the future. In fact, she has begun wandering into the universe of the World Wide Web, setting up her own Web page (mahurin00.tripod.com/sals/), where she posts little quips about her business.
"I do all kinds of research there," she said of the Internet. "That is how I keep up with what is going on in the restaurant business today. It just keeps things fresh around here."
As she looks forward, Hoskins sees change on the horizon.
The city of Soldotna has grown by leaps and bounds, taking Sal's diner on the wild ride with it, she says. There is no doubt in her mind that Soldotna will continue to grow, and she hopes to be a part of that growth.
"Soldotna and the people who live here have treated me and my diner with love, they made us part of their lives," Hoskins says.
"I hope that whatever happens here and whatever new business comes here, Soldotna and everyone who calls it home will always treat me that way."
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