Restaurateur going strong in retirement

Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- At age 63, Jim Bookey decided it was time to retire. So he bought three hamburger joints.

''This is retirement,'' Bookey laughs, 15 years after leaving the full-service restaurant business and opening the first Wee B's.

He bought one outlet to start, then opened two more. The original restaurant was soon closed, but the others are still going strong.

Bookey, now 78, works nearly every day. He does the bookkeeping, cooks and fills in wherever necessary.

''It keeps me out of the house so my wife doesn't have to put up with me,'' he said. Bookey and his wife, Mary, have been married for 58 years.

Bookey's philosophy on retirement is simple: ''You can't stay alive unless you keep your mind active and your body active.'' So on he goes.

''You've got to stimulate your mind,'' he said. ''If your mind goes to sleep, you start dying.''

Earlier this month, both Wee B's stores began opening at 6 a.m., offering full espresso and donut service.

What prompted him to go into the donut business?

''Oh, I probably had a spare moment one day or got bored for a half an hour. I am constantly looking for something new to do,'' he answers.

Bookey recently renovated the Spenard store, which included completely stripping the inside. He added simulated logs on the exterior to add curb appeal.

''I bought that store 15 years ago and it needed improvements then,'' said Bookey. The building had previously been a Church's Chicken.

He threw out the chicken stuff, put in grilles and started cooking hamburgers.

Every morning, the staff at Wee B's grinds hamburger, makes fresh buns and cuts potatoes for french fries.

''We are not the frozen type,'' said Bookey.

He has some very loyal customers, including Jim and Bev Wellborn of Sterling. They've have been eating hamburgers with Bookey for 33 years, long before he started Wee B's.

Before his ''retirement,'' Bookey owned several restaurants around Alaska called Bookey's. There was one in Kenai, one in Soldotna and two in Anchorage.

''They (Bookey's) made the best breakfast,'' Jim Wellborn said.

''And they are the only ones who made their own buns and homemade french fries,'' added Bev Wellborn.

Bookey thinks businesses like his, offering fast food with homemade ingredients, are a dying breed.

''There are only a handful of us left,'' he said.

How has Wee B's survived competition from the national chains?

''As my wife says, I am just plain cheap.

''I don't believe the money in the register is mine,'' he offers as further explanation. ''It's the restaurant's.'' So he doesn't take money from the restaurant for vacations and such.

Another key to success, according to Bookey, is keeping up with the industry as it changes.

''You can't sit back with your foot stuck in the mud,'' he said.

Bookey says McDonald's and other fast food chains changed the business.

Before McDonald's, nobody picked up their trays and threw their garbage away. They expected to be waited on, he said.

''They (McDonalds) have helped make people fast-food conscious,'' Bookey said.

Bookey shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. He jokes that his doctor told him to cut back from 14 hours a day to 12. But he's happy to keep busy.

''I take off Thanksgiving and Christmas whether I need it or not,'' he said.

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