Growing up in Raymond, brothers Kaley and Joe Hanson made tree forts and played army together on what they describe as “a glorified farm surrounded by 40 acres.”
When they were able-bodied pre-teens, their fisherman father, Dan Hanson, began bringing them to Bristol Bay, Alaska, during summer vacations to work catching fish.
“We’d come back with a good amount of money … and experience,” said Kaley. “My dad taught us to work at a young age, so we always knew we could just go work.”
Today, the brothers put those well-groomed teamwork skills to use in operating the Pitchwood Alehouse in downtown Raymond, and its corresponding hotel — both of which they opened to the public as a family venture in 2012.
At 35 and 32, the duo is somewhat of an anomaly in the area, where much of the younger generation has vacated the struggling economy for higher education and other opportunities.
“A lot of people wanted to get out. Their parents and grandparents told them to leave,” said Kaley, who, in addition to owning and operating Pitchwood, is a father of three young children and a recently appointed Raymond City Council member. Both brothers are also football coaches at Raymond High School. “… Unless they were taking over a business or had a job in the woods, they left. They did what they had to do, but it’s part of what drove the nail in the coffin of the community.”
For him, returning to his home town had always been part of the plan.
“I remember thinking it was a great place, and I always wanted to come back (if I ever left),” Kaley said.
Back to Raymond
Both brothers eventually did sample life outside of Raymond before returning to open Pitchwood.
While their father had instilled a love to work in them, they said he had also often hinted that they should explore other options for their own personal careers.
“He knew it could be hard,” said Joe, adding his father, who still works as a fisherman, was often gone for five or six months at a time when they were growing up; once he was gone for 13 months. “We were very grateful for what he did for our family, but basically we were told we should do something else with our lives.”
Kaley at first did not heed such direction after graduating from Raymond High School, he waited for the woman who would become his wife and the mother to his three young children, Sami Hanson, who was a year behind him at Willapa Valley High School.
“Even though my dream was to go to University of Washington I kind of sabotaged that, I thought that we would break up if I went,” he said. “At the time my parents thought it was a bad idea, but now I have three beautiful children.”
Instead, he and his wife both went to Grays Harbor College and then to The Evergreen State College, where he studied environmental design and architecture. Later, in the midst of the housing boom, Kaley, who has always had an entrepreneurial spirit, decided to remodel a Seattle home “that no one else wanted” and try to make a profit.
He was able to get a construction loan and the family moved to Seattle. Joe came up to help, and the house was sold within three weeks of opening. Kaley says it was that experience, which led to a job with a construction company, — along with his later experience as a club promoter and manger at Brewery City Pizza in Olympia — that all culminated in his brainstorming for ideas that would become Pitchwood.
Joe also had his own exploratory path before returning home, spending time in Bellevue before moving to Portland and then returning to school, where he studied electronic engineering — a passion since childhood (his family remembers him dissecting televisions and stereos as young as 2 years old). After graduating and finding an engineering job in California, he sold everything and traveled through Europe. While there, he was able to enjoy the experience without worries about future employment — Kaley had promised him a job at a new venture back home at what would become Pitchwood.
“This was something I had been dreaming about for years,” Kaley said of his dream to own a restaurant and motel. It was first inspired after he heard the Port of Willapa was trying to attract someone to create such a venture on port property in the early 1990s. “I thought it would be the coolest job ever … And now, well, 15 years later …”
As soon as he set his sights upon the possibility as an adult, potential names for his establishment and menu items filled his head.
“I thought about it non-stop for a few years,” he said, adding he “knew it would cost a lot of money,” but hadn’t yet figured out where financing would come from.
He began surveying his friends and local residents on visits home for ideas as to what the area needed.
“Every time I’d come home, I’d talk to people and would ask them, ‘What do you do for fun?’ And they’d say they went to Olympia or Astoria if they wanted to do anything fun,” he said. He slowly came to realize there was a distinct need that he could potentially fulfill. “People spend money on entertainment every month and they spend it outside of the community. It’s a crime in itself.”
The Hansons decided on a goal of providing “good food, good beer and good music,” a combination they said did not exist in the area. They began to look at building costs in downtown Raymond, finally estimating it would take about $400,000 to build a brand new restaurant. That’s when they were contacted by the former owner of the restaurant that would become Pitchwood, who asked them to consider his restaurant.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you come by and take a look?’ … It was a hoppin’ place in the ’80s and ’90s, but seemed like a dive bar and needed a lot of work,” Kaley said.
But they saw it as much more of a feasible venture monetarily. So they set up an appointment. “I thought if we saw past all the clutter on the walls, I saw something really close to what we wanted. I thought maybe we could make it work.”
One caveat to their final decision was the decrepit motel that was attached.
“Most people thought it looked like a tear-down,” said Joe, adding only a few long-term tenants lived in it at that point. “When we got in you’d walk into some of the units and would fall right through the floor… Even our dad said , ‘Do you really want to take that on? It’s not good.’ ”
But Kaley knew the motel would play an important role in the symbiotic relationship with the tavern.
“The motel made the most sense. We knew both would make each more successful,” he said. Eventually he predicted the rooms and alcohol sales could help offset the food ingredients that would be necessary to complete his goal.
They tallied up costs and decided they could remodel the motel for about $100,000, which they thought could work — and it was finalized. Kaley and his father — “the silent partner” — entered into co-ownership of the motel and restaurant, and Kaley moved his family back to his hometown. Joe, while maintaining a huge managing role with Pitchwood and assisting Kaley with the many facets of ownership, still has not yet decided if he wants to enter into the partnership as a co-owner.
Realizing the vision
The Hansons did a quick remodel of what was then called Top Notch Tavern, buying many items from an auction at the closed Bridges Inn restaurant across the street and using many reclaimed materials. They gave themselves a week to re-open to the public in order not to lose existing clientele.
The Pitchwood Alehouse, with its newly painted bright red exterior, and its new shiny wood cabin appearance, (sans the signed dollar bills which once covered the walls), looks rugged yet classically elegant and well-maintained. A large wood stove sits next to a jukebox in the main dining area, which faces an elaborate stage setup in the front corner of the restaurant for viewing by those at the bar, dining area and upstairs lounge.
“Although I have a ton of pride in what I was doing, I wanted it to blend in seamlessly,” said Kaley. “I wanted it to look like its been here 50 years. I wanted them to look at it and try to figure out what we added.”
They set about hiring another local who had left to attend culinary school as the head chef and collaborated on the “good food” aspect of the journey, creating a menu including as many local, fresh ingredients as possible. Today, the menu features many upscale bar-type foods, including flatbread pizzas, appetizers like Goose Point steamer clams, an elaborate list of sandwiches and burgers and an additional, brand-new Paleo menu, and a daily specials menu which includes many vegetarian as well as meat-based items. They soon hope to be able to use vegetables grown in the newly tilled garden in the yard of his parents’ home, which formally belonged to the owner of the Bridges Inn, who grew all of her own vegetables for the restaurant.
The brothers also pride themselves on their selection of beers on tap, including many micro-brews.
“Most people around here were drinking domestics,” said Kaley. “But when we talked to people they said they liked (different craft beers). We knew that people loved good beer here, but no one was doing good beer.”
The family continues to remodel the motel, but they still have been able to rent out certain rooms since they opened in May of 2012. The rooms, which Tripadvisor.com reviews detail as “unique,” “super comfortable” and “bordering on boutique luxury,” are designated by names such as “The Moonshine Room.” They each feature elaborate works of carpentry made by both brothers, using local materials and wood, and make the most of new-age, environmentally friendly techniques such as using pennies to create copper shower floors. Soon, they will feature pictures of each of the rooms on their website at www.pitchwoodalehouse.com.
“Ten times harder”
The brothers say even though it was hard work opening, it was “ten times harder and there were ten more things to do,” than expected.
“The toughest thing is the town is such a small population and business in the state is geared toward big business,” said Joe, adding that economic activity in the area seems to be picking up already and he hopes it will improve even more in the next five years with the “marijuana growth” in Raymond.
From the get-go, the alehouse became a local favorite, but also draws a large part of its clientele from travelers on Highway 101 looking online for a place to eat or stay. They are even turning one of the hotel rooms into a hostel-style room, for the many bicyclists that come to the Pitchwood.
“Locals will tell us in person, ‘Man we love that black and blue burger.’ But people traveling are the ones writing the reviews and that reaches out way farther than we can,” said Kaley, adding they have had travelers stop back in months after first finding them online. “Those reviews are read by people in the Netherlands planning bike trips across North America.”
“Everyone traveling 101, they’re not in a hurry, if they were in a hurry they’d be on I-5. They’re looking for a good experience,” added Joe.
The regulars are very regular, and expect they will be able to frequent the restaurant on any day of the week.
“We’re open seven days a week, we would love to be closed one day a week. But we tried that and with our clientele we just can’t be closed,” said Kaley, adding they received so much backlash after closing on Mondays, that they switched back to 7-days a week almost immediately. “But it’s a good sign. If people want to eat on a Monday, that’s great. We won’t turn them away.”
The spot has also become a destination for musicians looking to play on their way between larger gigs.
Kaley began booking local music, which Pitchwood has weekly, and books out through the year by taking recommendations and looking up band schedules. He would then contact them to see if they’d like to play on one of their nights off as they traveled on their tours.
“I’d try to find someone who on an off-night wanted a free room and a couple hundred bucks,” he said, adding he often would spend hours trying to find new bands to play shows.
“It helps that we can offer lodging, as well, it’s that or paying for a place or sleeping in a van for most of them … We can capture bands that otherwise might not stop,” said Joe, adding that “each band that’s had a good experience has told five other bands,” and now they are starting to call Pitchwood as opposed to the Hansons having to search for them.
Today, the brothers continue to improve upon what they have — including plans to add a family friendly extension to the restaurant. Both are very involved with the community, as coaches and in many other ways. Kaley was recently chosen from a number of candidates as a new city council member after the resignation of Jason Dunsmoor.
“Especially being a business-minded person from a younger generation than they have had in the past, I feel like I have a lot of ideas,” he said, adding one of his main ideas is enticing businesses to come back into the downtown area, which is currently very depressed. “The way the town is laid out, the fabric of it is a very walkable town. People need to come downtown for more than one reason. There’s (currently) maybe one reason a week for people to come to town for locals.”
The two are also part of the Willapa Community Development Association, started by Port of Willapa Harbor Manager Rebecca Chaffee. As part of that they have taken on a number of community projects, including the Willapa Festival, and turned what was a “dying festival” into a great success last year, according to Chaffee. They’ve planned for the one this summer to be just as big, and have already secured many bands to play.
They also have plans to create a “makerspace,” or a community based workshop that aids those interested with the tools to pursue projects they might not able to be afford on their own. That, which they said could be of benefit to young people in the area who have very little to do if they aren’t involved in sports, as well as opening a coffee shop/ice cream shop so that families have a place to meet when it’s raining — are all plans they are working on.
“I’m just thrilled with them,” said Chaffee. “Whenever we can keep young people or attract them back into the community it’s even better because then they go out and get that experience and bring it back into the community. They are so enthusiastic and committed and it makes everybody more energetic and committed.”
She said the area could also be improved with more individuals with the Hansons’ entrepreneurial spirits.
“They’re willing to take risks and that’s critical too, because you can’t just sit. You gotta risk falling flat. And they seem willing to put their money where their mouth is and take on these projects.”
The Hansons say they are increasingly bringing in more revenue as time goes on and word of Pitchwood spreads. But for them, an even greater side of their success is their ability to work alongside one another as a family. Their mom and dad, as well as their younger sister, also currently assist with work at the tavern and hotel.
“It’s very rewarding and fun to see your family in the weeds together,” said Kaley. “The first night working with Joe, I looked over at him as we were both hustling and pouring drinks and waiting tables. And, it was just … fun.”
Sam Luvisi: 360-537-3935 or firstname.lastname@example.org and @Dw_Sluvisi on Twitter