By RJ Johnson
If you are traveling up to Fairbanks from Anchorage, you will pass through many small towns along the way. After Trappers Creek, Denali, and Healy you will hit the small town of Clear, Alaska. Look to the left of the road for an unassuming building with a rusty pickup truck in front. That truck will probably be covered in flowers, and a sign will read Clear Sky Lodge Bar and Grill. You will want to turn into that parking lot and head inside for an experience that is more than meets the eye.
The Clear Sky Lodge was founded July of 1961. It has been a community meeting space in the small town of Clear for decades and has been a bar and restaurant for most of them. New owners Vicki and Matt Nelson took over the operations on May 1of this year. Neither had much experience in the world of service industry, but both have proved to be hard workers with clear goals and a stellar business sense. Employee Claire Carter, daughter of Clarence Carter, no relation to the more famous Carter that shares the name, said “Matt and Vicki are some of the most hardworking, selfless, kind, nurturing, business minded people that I have had the pleasure of working for. They go above and beyond what they are supposed to, and they have set the bar really high.”
Carter is one of many women that work at the roadhouse style establishment and continued.
“When it comes to people that you work for, and people that care about you individually, and the workplace as a whole and helping people thrive, they have made me really excited about the changes,” Carter said. “I am looking forward to getting busier and continuing to see what happens.”
Carter is usually found behind the bar when you stop in, even though each of the ladies that work at Clear Sky are ready, at any moment, to do “Everything — every single thing.” Employees of the lodge are expected to know how to cook the food, serve the tables, clean up, bartend, and sell alcohol and soda out of the small package store that is attached to the location. Last Sunday, at the Mother’s Day dinner that was attended by a capacity crowd, each of the ladies were hustling as fast as possible while serving filet mignon, shrimp scampi, and more to the guests. Some of the ladies of Clear Sky have been with the business for ten years, while some, like Carter, have only been around for a couple of years.
“I came up here and spent a couple summers up here working. Then, a-year-and-a-half ago a girl that I had worked at that first place called and asked me if I wanted to move to Clear, Alaska. She said she had a job, and a place for me to live, so six weeks later I was on a plane moving to what seemed like the other side of the world,” Carter said. That year and a half has been the entirety of Carter’s bartending experience, but she has been in the service industry sporadically for twenty years. “I am originally from Winter Park, Florida. I tried to find the furthest place I could actually move.”
With the varying degrees of experience within the staff at Clear Sky, the Nelson’s decided they needed to bring in some professionals with experience to let them know if they were on the right path with the choices and changes that were being made. They called in consultant Emily Craver and her team from Bar Stars Professional Bartending School for some help. Over three days Craver and her team assessed what was going on and worked with the staff to make a custom drink menu and get a solid marketing plan started among other things. What the Bar Stars team found was a dedicated staff, and owners who had the correct instincts to create happy customers. In addition, they found a customer base that enjoyed whiskey, as well as a bartender that was fond of it as well.
Carter is a self-proclaimed whiskey girl, but that wasn’t always the case.
“It’s really only been since I have been in Alaska that I have embraced the whiskey culture and really started to enjoy drinking it,” she said. Most of the regulars at Clear Sky are straight forward in all things, including the beverages that they enjoy. When it came time to collaborate with the consulting team, they decided to introduce some craft cocktails that would fit right in with the rustic theme, so the Rusty Pickup was born. “It reminds me of an old BBQ get together. It’s like everyone is outside, smelling like a fire pit, getting dirty.” With a glass that has been rinsed with a combination of liquid smoke and bitters, the addition of Jim Beam bourbon and topped with ginger ale and lemon, Carter has taken a liking to it. “I think that’s my favorite. I like the liquid smoke to it. Just a little bit, just enough to tell you, ‘Hey, I am here’ but not enough to overpower it and throw you off.”
The drink also pairs with the delicious food that you can get from the other ladies that work at Clear Sky. Stop in on a weekend to check out the make your own Bloody Mary bar, or trust the expert and get one from Leah. Head over to the salad bar and see what delicious and fresh items that Donna, one of the hardest working people on staff, has put out for your enjoyment. See if Penny is working if you need any info on local history, or where else to check out. Amber and Beth would be happy to help you at a table or make up some food for you on the grill. Lisa the manager might be the one to bring you out your food, or she could be working with Vicki on making sure everything is cleaned up for the next batch of customers coming through the door. Each of these amazing ladies will be multitasking to the best of their ability to give you a great experience.
Carter says that even if the staff is busy you will still find a friend at the Clear Sky. “Obviously, we have the best steaks, hands down, in Alaska. We have revved up the menu a bit, so there are new items, we have an amazing pork belly sandwich. Come in for the atmosphere, the overall environment; it’s kind of like walking into your hometown bar and everyone knows your name, as cliché as that sounds. Really, you do know everyone, and everyone is like a family. Even if you are just passing through as a tourist, belly up to the bar and if there are some locals around you guys are going to be best friends by the time you leave.”