This Couple Has Built A Mini Hospitality Empire In Seward

By Annie Zak Alaska Dispatch News, Anchorage

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Interesting story out of Alaska where a young couple is building a portfolio of restaurant and hotel properties in the town of Seward. To gear up for the busy summer season, the couple's businesses lean heavily on foreign workers who come to Alaska through the J-1 visa program, a seasonal work and travel program for international college students.

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On the hectic Friday ahead of the Fourth of July, hotelier and restaurateur Elliott Jackson shuffled between his properties in Seward in a delivery van, making the rounds in preparation for one of the busiest weekends of the year.

In the past decade, he and his wife, Toni Strauss, have made a name for themselves by scooping up hospitality sites in the sleepy Alaska town of about 2,700. They've amassed something of a small business empire with seven food and lodging businesses.

Their holdings include the Chattermark, Alaska Seafood Grill, Murphy's Alaskan Inn and the Marina Motel.

The couple recently merged three of their restaurants -- the Klondike Pizzeria, the Crab Shack and the Railway Cantina -- into one connected food court.

They've turned restaurant Christo's Palace into Seasalt, an eatery with a big new deck for seating.

About 10 blocks south from a cluster of the couple's restaurants at Fourth Avenue and North Harbor Street is the historic Van Gilder Hotel. They own that too, and Jackson said his father shot and killed the taxidermied brown bear that stands on its hind legs in a room near the entryway.

With so many properties to manage, Jackson, a self-described workaholic, said he's usually buzzing around doing supply runs and tending to his holdings from 5 a.m. until midnight.

"It's a lot for one person anywhere," let alone in a small community, said Cindy Clock, executive director of the Seward Chamber of Commerce.

Jackson, 46, whose full name is Charles Elliott Jackson, is originally from Anchorage. After college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Alaska Anchorage, he worked for a while at GCI but eventually "had enough of Anchorage," so he left. At first he moved to Homer, and later ended up in Seward. His foray into restaurants started with a single business called Taco Dan's, which he purchased from an aunt who started it in Palmer.

The Railway Cantina, a Mexican restaurant with an Alaska train painting on the wall and brochures for fishing charter and glacier tours on the front counter, was the first spot in Seward he bought.

Restaurants can be risky, and so much business in Seward depends heavily on tourist-heavy summer months. "You gotta make it all in 60 days," he said. "June 20 to Aug. 20."

To gear up for the busy summer season, the couple's businesses lean heavily on foreign workers who come to Alaska through the J-1 visa program, a seasonal work and travel program for international college students.

Jackson and Strauss (she declined to be interviewed for this story) provide bunk housing for their J-1 workers and take $350 a month out of their paychecks in exchange for it. Jackson estimates that this summer, about 60 percent of their 60-some workers are on J-1 visas. They find many other employees from the Lower 48 through seasonal online job boards.

"They're a really good source," Jackson said of J-1 workers. "Hardly anyone locally walks through looking for a job."

Joelle White, 22, is spending her second summer working in Seward on a J-1 visa, last year for Best Western and this year for Jackson and Strauss. White is from Jamaica, where she's studying to be a doctor. She said the program allows students the opportunity to save money while also meeting Alaska locals and people from all over the world.

Not everyone is thrilled about Jackson and Strauss growing their holdings around town.

"I've gotten a lot of negative whiplash, to tell you the truth," Jackson said. Some people in town weren't happy that his renovations adding some doors and windows to the Seasalt building cut into the huge whale mural there, he said.

Sometime in the future he wants to take the mural off the side of that building -- "it's chipping away, it looks bad," he said -- and replace it. There are no concrete plans to do so at the moment.

"When I can afford to redo it -- it's a matter of funds and paying for something like that," he said. "It's one of those things that will be done."

On Fourth Avenue in downtown, a sticker on a brewery window reads, "Friends Don't Let Friends Eat at Elliot's" (spelled with just one "t," but apparently in reference to Jackson's businesses), accompanied by a rising fist holding a fork above the words "viva la resistance."

Erik Slater, a co-owner of Seward Brewing Co. and a member of the Seward City Council, said he didn't put the sticker there.

"Some point this winter, as far as I know, someone got them printed up and started sticking them everywhere," said Slater. "I see them around. There's definitely ... some people aren't stoked that he's buying everything. I think people are more inclined to speak out nowadays. I don't know if it's the political climate or what."

Jackson said he heard about the stickers going up all around town in January.

"Why would you do something so stupid?" he said. "If you've ever been here in the wintertime, most people don't have anything better to do than sit at a bar and drink."

Clock, from the chamber of commerce, said Seward is "not that unaccustomed to fairly wealthy people who have business holdings," but that the number of businesses Jackson and Strauss have amassed might be surprising to some.

"Places do change hands, but this is the first time this has happened in Seward," she said.

As another entrepreneur in Seward's restaurant industry, Slater said he doesn't mind Jackson's growth.

"He's turning places around that need a face-lift. Can't knock him for that," Slater said. Jackson has plans to open a brewery on a piece of land he recently bought, and Slater only sees it as a potential boost to his own business: "Great for me, if it brings other people to town."

Jackson said he and Strauss work long days, frequently running back and forth to Anchorage for supplies. Most of the money they make, he said, goes right back into their businesses, many of which are "works in progress." Hard work and learning from mistakes are key, he said. One of the biggest mistakes he's learned from, he half-jokes: "Buying restaurants."

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