The new owner of Gwin's Lodge in Cooper Landing had a revelation shortly after he bought the business.
It was 1995, and Robert Siter feared his landmark log cabin restaurant would be too small for the rush of anglers he expected following a fishing closure on the Deshka River. He put up a vinyl shelter for the overflow, but customers did not like it.
It hit him like a brick after he told a woman waiting on the porch that there were seats in the vinyl shelter.
"She started to cry. She said, 'I wanted to go inside and see the logs,'" he said. "That's what they pay for, to see the logs and eat the food."
Siter realized that he had tried to expand in ways that did not fit the business. Since then, he has worked to preserve the rustic atmosphere. He has restored the 1940s log building, and, now, he is looking into registering it as a national historic site.
"Our goal is to produce homemade food in Alaska portions in a pioneer roadhouse atmosphere," he said. "That is what Gwin's was famous for 50 years ago."
"When people are crowded together talking about hiking and rafting and fishing, and they're all excited about it, that's an excellent atmosphere."
Rober Siter; Gwen's Owner
Gwin's began in 1946, when Pat and Helen Gwin built their homestead. The same year, construction began on the highway from Cooper Landing to Homer.
"With the road coming through, they had a golden opportunity to create a business," Siter said.
The Sterling Highway opened in 1950 and the Seward Highway in 1951. In 1952, the Gwin's opened their lodge. When Siter bought it in 1994, it included the restaurant and bar, a tiny store and six rental cabins.
"Now, I have a store that's about 10 times bigger," he said. "I have the same roadhouse restaurant, the bar and 21 lodging units."
Gwin's lies halfway between Anchorage and Homer, halfway between Seward and Soldotna, and minutes from the Russian River. It is the perfect location, Siter said. It is an easy drive to Seward for a Kenai Fjords tour, to Soldotna for a king salmon trip or to Ninilchik for a halibut charter.
"We're on the 50-yard line no matter how you slice the peninsula," he said. "Our goal is to help them get their arms around the Kenai Peninsula from the 50-yard line."
The trick is to market the area, he said. The idea is to capture visitors who might otherwise sign onto package tours. He sells advertising on his restaurant place mats to businesses that offer fishing charters, whitewater rafting and custom fish-smoking. The place mats include coupons worth $10 discounts with fishing guides and tour boat operators.
Siter also runs a business connecting his customers with local guides and outfitters. His advertisements in the Milepost and numerous visitor guides promote not just Gwin's, but also Cooper Landing and the peninsula.
"If I tell you, 'You can come here and be on the 50-yard line. You can go deep or play shallow,' it's going to be more effective than saying, 'I have one boat and one fishing trip,'" he said. "You have to sell the Kenai Peninsula. The idea is to give them a menu -- say, 'You can order the taco combo or you can customize your own trip.'"
As Siter adds modern chalets to the original Gwin's cabins, overnight guests stay longer.
When he bought Gwin's, he said, the 250-square-foot lodge store sold little more than candy bars, sodas, liquor, T-shirts, hats and some fishing tackle. In 1997, he added a pizzeria and ice cream bar and expanded the tackle shop. In 1998, he added a showroom to sell upscale clothing embroidered with local logos.
"That's had the largest impact on our revenue and our image," he said. "I'm kicking myself that it took me three years to get on this."
Siter learned the business washing dishes in the restaurant his parents ran in Vermont. He graduated from Syracuse University in New York in 1978 with a major in mathematics. In 1979, he joined the U.S. Air Force and learned to fly jets. In 1990, he transferred to Elmendorf Air Force Base where he scrambled F-15 fighter planes after Soviet bombers.
"In 1994, this place came for sale," he said. "I said, 'I've been coming here for years as a tourist. I like the fishing.' It was a central area and it was for sale. So I bought it. With that was the idea that I did not want to leave Alaska."
Siter was still in the Air Force, but his parents came to help run the business. His father, George, became his general manager. His mother, Shirley, became head cook. Robert came on weekends and during his annual 30-day leaves until he retired from the Air Force last year. Now, Robert is general manager and his father is assistant manager.
"The first couple of years we were here, a lot of it was about renovation," Robert said.
But Siter retained the rustic atmosphere, including the tables, bar and counter the Gwin's cut from local spruce. Old photos -- Pat Gwin patting a moose, workers roofing a cabin in the 1940s -- join mounted salmon and trout on the walls.
Customers come for more than burgers, he said, and that is what draws them to Gwin's.
"When people are crowded together talking about hiking and rafting and fishing, and they're all excited about it, that's an excellent atmosphere," he said.
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