Tuesday, November 25, 2008

New owners, same Old Town charm — Veronica’s coffee house changes hands, not much else

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Veronica’s Coffee House is changing hands, but other than a few new faces and a “Dora the Explorer” cup on the shelf for the new owner’s granddaughter, patrons shouldn’t see a difference in the Old Town Kenai landmark.

“We’re not going to change a thing,” said Diane Hooper, co-owner. “I love this place. Veronica’s is my favorite restaurant. I love the people who come here, and the music. People have come to expect certain food on certain days, and we’re not going to change that.”

Hooper, of Kenai, is in the process of buying the restaurant with her friend of 30 years, Kathy Miller, from Wasilla.

“We both came to a place in our lives where it happened. We talked about doing a business together, centered around food. Both of us have a passion for food and love to entertain,” Hooper said.

After having a variety of jobs in her working career, from Alaska State Trooper dispatcher to travel agent, and most recently the secretary at Kenai Grace Brethren Church, Hooper found herself looking for work. She considered going to culinary school, but that didn’t stick, she said.

Miller came to the peninsula to visit a couple months ago and they looked into purchasing an espresso shop, but it was out of their league. Then she heard about Veronica’s being for sale, and things seemed to click, Hooper said.

“It just happened,” Hooper said. “All the doors just opened, everything felt right. It’s a magical place at night with the snow falling and the lights on and the music. And now I can be part of it every day.”

As she now jokes, “I looked for a job the last several months and I couldn’t find one, so I bought one.”

Hooper and Miller met as new mothers in Valdez and reconnected in Wasilla a few years later, where they ended up living in the same subdivision and raising their kids together. Whenever Miller came to Kenai to visit Hooper, they’d end up at Veronica’s.

“Veronica’s is really special to us. It’s really eclectic, which is something that we really like, and the food was really good and the people are really friendly. There was just something about it,” Miller said.

She’s leaving her job as a hotel manager in Anchorage and moving to Kenai this week. Miller has had prior food service experience, working with her sister in a catering business and cooking on the North Slope.

“It’s very much a big change. With the hotel I’m on call 24-seven and there’s always employee problems. Making more for somebody else is great, but it’s always better if you own your own business and make money for yourself, so I’m really excited for this opportunity,” she said.

Hooper has jumped right in, learning to wash dishes, use the cash register and prepare the food on Veronica’s menu. Her next feat will be learning how to make coffee, all taught by employees Chris Pepper and Katie Evans, who will stay on with the restaurant.

“These guys have been great. I couldn’t have done it without them,” Hooper said, as she spooned pasta salad onto plates in the kitchen Friday night, while the open mic night crowd belted out a chorus of “Aye, yie, yie yie, sea stars aren’t starfish!”

“I can’t think of a more fun place to work and spend my time,” Hooper said. “I walked out the door and just had this overwhelming joy bubble up, I turned around and looked back and the snow was falling and you could see the stars — it was like someone had sprinkled magic dust on it.”

Soon-to-be previous co-owner, Rebecca Lambourn, said she’s glad to have found new owners who appreciate Veronica’s charm.

“It’s a very beloved community gathering place. And it’s fun, that’s what it’s about. I’m happy to find someone to keep that going,” she said.

Lambourn and her husband, Stan Coleman, bought Veronica’s a little over four years ago from a friend who was about to shut it down.

“I love this place. It was going to close so we wanted to keep it open for two big reasons — as a common gathering place, and at the same time to keep the music scene going,” she said.

Nearly as soon as they bought Veronica’s, the restaurant started hosting live music performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, with other events, like a folk jam, added in periodically. This fall Lambourn cut back to just open mic nights on Fridays, because there was a dip in people coming out to listen to the music. Lambourn said she’s hopeful the music scene will pick up again, and Hooper said she intends to keep the Friday night open mic venue going.

Though she loved her tenure at Veronica’s, it’s time to entrust it to someone else’s hands — and knees, Lambourn said. After knee replacement surgery, she finds it difficult to stay on her feet all day in the kitchen, and Veronica’s is a business that needs to be owner-operated to be successful, she said.

“I’m not a restaurateur. We did it for more cultural reasons, really. I’m not that into running a business,” she said.

Lambourn plans to teach more anthropology classes at Kenai Peninsula College, where she’s an adjunct professor. Coleman is refurbishing a boat and they plan to spend more time on that in the summer, perhaps going to Seldovia more often, where Lambourn may get involved with the arts council and music scene there.

“I thought I might match my socks or something, which shows you how chaotic the last four years have been,” she said.

That’s doesn’t mean she’ll be a stranger.

“We tried to make this a cozy, warm corner here in Old Town Kenai,” she said. “In some ways I almost enjoy the winter more in this place than summer. You drive by and it’s so warm and inviting. I wish the new owners best of luck in keeping the Veronica’s spirit alive.

“I feel really good that we’re — pun intended — ending on a good note.”

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