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HISTORY OF CHAIR 5

By Phil Griffin

Chair Five Restaurant was conceived in a drunken stupor during the rainy season of 1982. It was really all just an accident that things turned out the way they did and turned into the Chair Five restaurant of today. It all started one Friday evening after a good afternoon of drinking at Alyeska Resort. I decided to walk to a local unknown place called the Double Musky Inn for the Friday night Happy Hour (still legal in Alaska in those days). By accident I stumbled, literally, into a vacant building, a dark cavernous empty shell, formerly the original Chilkoot Charlies bar.

Although the building had been vacant for 4 years and to put it mildly was a dump, it somehow enchanted me and by the next day I could think of little else. Within 24 hours I had a partner, Jesse my coworker at the Sitzmart Restaurant of Alyeska Resort, and after consuming numerous Scotch on the rocks had devised a plan. We would quit our jobs, borrow some money and presto, in 2-3 weeks be ready to open Girdwood's hippest restaurant. What could be easier than this project I reasoned? Being 23 years old and possessing my as yet unused Business Degree from Utica College of Syracuse University I was ready to take on the world.

A few more drinking sessions and Jesse and I had a business plan in order. We would sell 50% ownership for $50,000 to a friend of Jesse's, sweat equity our share of 25% each, buy the property for $210,000 in six months when our lease option came due and life would be peachy. We would cater to budget minded folks with a simple menu that began with breakfast at 6 am and ended with late night dinners at midnight. Our projections showed (or guessed) we could serve 200 people a day and be rich by the end of the first year. Life doesn't get better than this, we joked, as we consumed mass Scotch quantities. Then reality started to ruin our dream....

We had no sooner signed our lease with a purchase option than I picked up the newspaper and noticed that it was now December 7th, also known as Pearl Harbor day. I hope that's not a bad omen, I joked, but deep down I felt that the easy part (daydreaming about self employment) was maybe over. Less than 10 days later the notice came in the mail that the owner of the property was being foreclosed on and a week later the notice of her filing for bankruptcy came. By Christmas we got the news that our investors wanted no part of a bankruptcy and were no longer interested in putting up the remaining $45,000 for us to complete the purchase and open the restaurant.

"Well, there's no need to panic." I told Jesse, "Let's just go down to the bank and borrow some money." I'll never forget the goofy look on the guy's face at the bank after I calmly told him of our misfortune with our ex partners, the foreclosure, the bankruptcy and all we really wanted to do was borrow a little money, open for business and get rich quick. "Mr. Griffin, I'd really like to help you," he droned, "but that's just not possible at this time. You say you quit your job so you have no income at this time. You mention bankruptcy and foreclosure and it all just has too much risk for our bank to get involved in. But hey, after you've been in business a few years and if you need a remodel loan or something, be sure you come to see me!" A polite handshake masked my true feelings of wanting to punch his lights out and Jesse and I retreated from the bank cussing and moaning all the way back to Girdwood.

The magic day arrived on January 26th, 1983, exactly a year after I had arrived in Alaska. What a day it was to be.... We planned the big opening for 3 p.m. that Sunday and the last frantic touches were still be worked on at 2:45 when suddenly I spotted smoke in the little cabin next door. Although only 12 by 15 feet, it was occupied by my friend, Susan, and her 9 year old daughter, Nicole. I quickly ran to the cabin and threw open the door. Smoke and flames shot out as I darted in and called for either. I decided to check the small loft even though no one answered back as the smoke was thick as mole asses. All was well as they were not home, but my only suit was now ruined and the presence of fire trucks and the ensuing spectacle caused us to not open until almost 5 o'clock. Little did we know that our grand opening, as much of a failure as it was, would be our best day for almost 4 months.

With no cash to operate we became desperate. We used our Alaska Permanent Fund dividend checks of $1,000 (each resident gets a check every year for living here from the earnings of the oil fields in Prudhoe Bay, nice huh!) and then proceeded to obtain and use credit anywhere and everywhere we could. We bought a toilet at Montgomery Wards, stereo at J.C. Penney, nails and tools at Sears and applied for lines of credit whenever possible. The beauty of these stupid credit card companies is they have no idea how desperate you are for money. Each month having maxed out every card possible and made just the bare minimum payment, lo and behold, the limit was raised and we could use the cards to buy more. We even got cash advances and used those to make payments on the other cards, which, of course, meant they would raise our limit even more.

When you start a business it seems like you can never have enough money. Sales are never enough and costs are always more than you planned. And don't forget every where you turn there is another fee, license or tax to pay. On top of this Alaska had a new governor, William Sheffield, a man who was not big on alcohol, and showed it by not appointing an Alcohol Beverage Control Board for 3 months. No board means no licenses issued so we dragged on doing less than $50 a day in sales on average with no hope in sight from opening day in January until May 5th, 1983. This was to be our salvation and also the start of many a headache.

With negative cash flow, we had been offering some pretty lousy food and had a reputation to match. By July, my partner decided that 8 months with no salary and no wife and kids (she left him in February), it was time to move on. In exchange for half the business, I agreed to buy him one last Scotch and exonerate him from all liabilities, which by now were pushing $30,000. We also had gone from the original staff of 12 to one part time cook and me to do everything else from bartender and waiter to janitor, cook and maintenance man. I also had sold everything I owned, including 100 shares of Chrysler for $2,000 that I had bought for $5 a share when Lee Iacocca took control 2 years earlier... and my pickup truck to pay the rent.

Getting groceries was now quite a chore. I would line up a ride into Anchorage, 35 miles away, write rubber checks in the hope that I could sell enough goods to beat the check to the bank 2 days later and then hitchhike back with the goodies and open the restaurant. By the fall things were actually starting to improve due to some strange phenomena: The pipeline was starting to put out some real oil so the money began to flow from the North Slope oil field workers, salmon fishing had a record season and then the crabbers came in with the biggest wads of cash I had ever witnessed. It was so good some times that my tips exceeded sales on occasion as one drunk fisherman after another would stand up and ring the bell as loud as he could, which meant he wanted to buy a round for the house. They would toss a crisp hundred dollar bill on the bar and yell out "keep it, there's plenty more where that came from" and other gibberish that only drunks can think of. By the winter of '84-85 the cash was actually flowing in the positive direction. After our first year's sales of only $67,000, we were able to double it by the following year.

That winter I met "Doc", a man who would add a great deal to Chair Five. One night the front door opened and in walked a quiet Texan who bellied up to the bar and inquired about a local that he had met in Anchorage several nights earlier. What started as polite conversation ended up being 6 hilarious joke telling hours later with me offering him a job with no guaranteed salary and a place to stay. Benny, most everyone called him Doc, was an instant hit with the locals and tourists alike. While he couldn't remember what he ate for breakfast he could reel off joke after joke, story after story, from 4 p.m. 'til the time we closed.

 







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