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Owners of Moose's, Bear Tooth buy Spenard property but say no plans yet

Nathaniel Herz
Nat Herz

The owners of the wildly popular food, beer, and entertainment business that began with the Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria have acquired a prime piece of Spenard real estate -- but they're not sure what they're going to do with it.

The property and building that once housed La Mex restaurant, at Spenard Road and 26th Avenue, was purchased in December by a property company that's majority owned by the two friends who opened Moose's Tooth in 1996.

It's the latest move in an expansion of a business that now includes a brewing company, and the Bear Tooth Theatrepub and Bear Tooth Grill, which are just two blocks from La Mex's old location.

There are no firm plans yet for the property, according to Dave Caldwell, who works with owners Matt Jones and Rod and Warren Hancock.

Whether the new property could become a new Tooth, or something else, like a tenant-operated business, is still unclear.

"We're just looking comprehensively at our options -- to either own or operate a business out of there, and/or just to make it available for retail space, or a company that wants to run a business out of there," Caldwell said. "We don't have a 100 percent concrete direction, other than that we know it would be great for Spenard, and the building itself, to fix it back up."

La Mex was a Spenard staple for more than 40 years before shutting down on Dec. 14. The neighborhood changed around it: a brothel that the former owner said once operated in what is now La Mex's back parking lot has been torn town, and the nearby bar said to have Alaska's first mechanical bull is gone, too.

Caldwell said that the new owners want the La Mex property to be part of "the continued enhancement of the Spenard area."

"We really do believe in this part of town," he said.

So far, the new owners have received an interior demolition permit from the city, but on Monday, the ground floor decor from La Mex appeared to still be in place. The lights in the building were off.

The new owners have put up signs in the large parking lot behind La Mex advertising its availability to Bear Tooth customers, who have long struggled to find spots and avoid aggressive tow trucks on private lots in the area. . Future plans for La Mex's lot depend on how the building ultimately gets used, Caldwell said.

The property company that bought La Mex is also applying to the state's alcohol control board to transfer the restaurant's liquor license to an unnamed business at the same spot -- a request that the Anchorage Assembly will consider at its meeting Tuesday.

The transfer would mean that the license could only be used at the Spenard property, but it could also be transferred to another property later.

The liquor license could be used at the La Mex location as long as there's no "substantial change" in its operations, like increasing the building's floor area or adding outdoor seating, said Francis McLaughlin, a senior planner with the city.

Those types of changes would trigger a review process, McLaughlin said. Merely repainting the building, or switching its signs, would not.

Rumors about the acquisition of the La Mex property have been circulating among "people in the know," according to Tim Steele, one of the two Assemblymen who represents the area.

He said that the new owners had been "a bit tight-lipped" about their plans, but noted that parking would be a major concern, given the existing demand at the Bear Tooth.

"We all know what the impacts are now, and we anticipate that whatever they put in there is going to be very successful -- and there'll probably be a huge parking impact from that," he said.

He called the owners "good business folks," and said he expected them to present residents with plans "in a timely manner."

If La Mex is converted into a new restaurant, it would be the third location for the business that Jones and Rod Hancock started in 1996, when Moose's Tooth opened in Midtown.

The two men met at the University of Washington. Hancock studied computer science and Jones eventually went to law school, but the two thought that owning their own business would leave them time to ski and climb.

As they scouted a spot for a pub in Anchorage, Jones brewed beer in the bathroom of a downtown apartment, while Hancock tested pizza recipes.

They raised $130,000 from parents and friends, interest free, and repaid it all in the first year their business was open.

Expansion came at a deliberate pace: for years, Moose's Tooth served some of its patrons outside of its building in a connected all-season tent, which was needed to accommodate a growing clientele.

Now, between the brewery and its restaurants, the business has about 500 employees. The owners have said they try to take care of each one of them, and offer health insurance to all employees.

That's part of what's made the business so successful, said Bill Popp, the president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation.

"They've got a cadre of loyal core employees that any restaurant would be envious of having," Popp said.

He said he hadn't heard about the new owners' plans for the La Mex property, but added: "I'm on pins and needles to see what they come up with."

"Because they are some of the smartest guys in the room, if you will," he said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

 


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com