Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
As has so often been written, including repeatedly in this column, the 1939 selection of Anchorage to house what became Fort Richardson made all the difference in the course of local history. The subsequent economic boom lasted for more than a decade.
As Anchorage ballooned from a rural town into a proper city, the population not only could support but indeed demanded a greater variety of entertainment, retail and food options. Dancers — primarily of the exotic variety — were brought up in waves from the Lower 48 and at exorbitant cost. A sprinkling of retail chains had previously established a presence in Anchorage, perhaps most notably Piggly Wiggly. Now Alaska increasingly became a chain destination, including Singer, Ben Franklin and Dairy Queen.
During the 1940s, the number of restaurants quickly doubled, doubled again and kept increasing. This was a time when the city needed a tiki bar, like the downtown South Seas Club. And this was a time when the city needed a café specializing in pies.
Today, Peggy’s Restaurant is an Anchorage landmark, one of the city’s oldest ongoing institutions. The original café was far more humble. The Airport Cafe, the “Peggy” in the name came later, opened as a 24-seat breakfast and lunch counter in the small Peck and Rice Airways building across the road from Merrill Field, directly opposite the control tower. The self-proclaimed grand opening, more of what would be called a soft opening now, was on Jan. 3, 1945. No meals were served, only coffee, cake and an opportunity to meet the owners. The eatery opened to the public on Jan. 5. The café's original hours of operation were from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
The opening of a café specializing in pie probably doesn’t seem like such a big deal these days. If you need a pie now, you could go to any of the several grocery stores, many of the bakeries, a specialist like the Pie Stop, or even Peggy’s Restaurant. You can get pie first thing in the morning or late at night. But in 1945, guaranteed pie stock was an innovation. Grocery stores then were smaller than today’s supermarkets, and it was not until the 1950s that Carrs opened an in-house bakery. As for the far-less-numerous local bakeries of 1945, it is worth recalling that sliced bread only made its way this far north in 1937.
Similarly, the Airport Café was also a significant milestone for Alaska airports. The rush for a coffee, snack or meal before a flight is an American airport ritual now. In 1945, the cafe was the first eatery at Merrill Field. Otherwise, staff, crew, pilots and passengers either packed food from home or headed into town to eat. The café also made box lunches for many flights. The first-day take was $100, about $1,500 in 2021 dollars.
That leaves the obvious question, who was Peggy? Margaret “Peggy” Lott, née MacKenzie, was born Dec. 1, 1902, in Lander, Wyoming. She graduated from the University of Wyoming, then made her way to Alaska in 1929 to teach. Here, she found her way to Seldovia, followed by Bethel.
It was in Bethel that she met and married her husband, Frank Lott, after a whirlwind, two-month courtship in 1933. He was a spectacular and notable Alaskan in his own right. Born in England, he was a late party to the Nome Gold Rush, arriving in 1908 shortly before the rush petered out. Unlike most fortune seekers who left when the booms dried up, he stayed. He learned mushing and delivered goods between the isolated villages and towns, first around Nome, then farther south into the Kuskokwim region where he ultimately met Peggy. He also was a member of the 1925 Nome Serum Run, the dog sled relay of enduring Leonhard Seppala and Togo fame. After moving to Anchorage, he owned the only bookstore in town, the original Book Cache. Anchorage was still rustic enough that a pot-bellied, wood-burning stove warmed the store, a feature long lost from modern book shops.
The Lotts lived in Bethel, Seldovia and Nyak before moving to Flat, near Iditarod. Frank worked as a radio operator for Pacific Alaska Airways. Peggy was appointed the United States Commissioner for Flat, which made her the local magistrate and typically the only government representative in town. Female commissioners were rare but not unheard of at that time. Valdez, Fort Yukon, Fort Gibbon, Nenana and Chatanika also had female commissioners before and contemporary to Lott.
After the Civil Aeronautics Authority took over the Flat radio station, the Lotts moved to Anchorage. The Airport Café opened as a partnership between Peggy, Frank, Jack Peck and Wyman Rice. Peggy managed the operation. In 1967, she told the Anchorage Daily Times, “It was something I’d always wanted to do... I did all my own cooking the first year. I built the business on my pies.” At the café's height, she was selling 75 pies a day. During her tenure, the most popular pies were banana cream, lemon, blueberry, apple and cherry.
The crowds that piled in were overwhelming male and young. A waitress from that time told the Anchorage Daily News in 1994, “You had to be a hard worker . . . And the front girls had to have a sense of humor because there weren’t a lot of women and there were a lot of guys and you had to be able to handle that and not become, well, a slut.”
The Lotts bought out their partners in 1947 to assume complete ownership of the restaurant. That original building, the Peck and Rice Airways building, is long gone, as is the bluff it stood upon. In 1956, the restaurant relocated to its current home, directly west of the original.
The name change was subtle at first. While Airport Café was the official name, Peggy was the face of the place, so it became colloquially known as Peggy’s Airport Café. After the move, the exterior sign made the “Peggy” addition official. The name was altered to its current Peggy’s Restaurant in the 1980s, well after the titular Peggy retired.
Peggy Lott was energetic, strict and stern to those who failed to meet her high standards. All cooks started as dishwashers, and waitresses had to have prior experience. No chewing gum or dangling earrings allowed. Her background as an authoritarian educator shone through long after she left the chalkboards behind. As she later said, “Once a schoolteacher, always a schoolteacher.” She also only hired female staff. “I hire all women because it’s much easier to get women to follow recipes,” she said.
Of course, she was more than a woman who baked pies. She was an avid golfer and bridge player. When city voters rejected a proposal for a new public golf course in the late 1960s, she took it as a sign to move away.
She was also a member of numerous local, state and national organizations, including the National Restaurant Association, Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, Pioneer Auxiliary of Alaska, Quota Club, League of Women Voters, Anchorage Women’s Club, and the Anchorage Mental Health Board. “I’m a joiner and I love it that way,” she told the Daily Times in 1968.
Peggy and Frank retired at the end of 1967. She had three employees when she opened and 30 when she retired, a simple, illuminating enumeration of her success. On Jan. 1, 1968, Bea Sappington officially took charge of the café after buying into the business. The Lotts maintained a small stake in the restaurant but immediately moved to Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands between Seattle and Vancouver. They traveled extensively, and not just to the tourist spots. Instead, they included places like Papua New Guinea, Greenland and Rwanda.
After Frank passed in 1973, she concluded that an isolated island was “no place for a single woman” and moved to Mount Vernon, Washington. She kept herself busy, contentedly filling the days with more travel, bridge, watching basketball and golf.
The old café faltered in the years directly after her departure. In 1971, it closed for a month after the IRS seized the business. Peggy bought the restaurant at auction, reopened it, sold out, and retired again. Since then, the restaurant has changed owners several times, including a brief, misbegotten rebranding in the early 1980s as Buon Appetito, which abandoned pies altogether along with the rest of the site’s history.
Peggy’s Anchorage visits began to dwindle as time moved on. On March 28, 2009, at the age of 103, she died at an assisted living facility in Mount Vernon. The daughter of rural Wyoming sheepherders had seen the passage of world wars, the Great Depression, Space Race and introduction of cell phones. She lived through both the entirety of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Time stops for no one. One of life’s many difficulties is having a presence that continues for even a short time after your death. Yet, the seed of a tiny airport café has endured for more than 75 years, outlasting even its centenarian founder. The faster times the world seems to spin, perhaps the greater appreciation due that which survives.
“Airport Has Eating Place.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 2, 1945, 7.
“Frank Lott Dies in Hospital Outside.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 14, 1973, 68.
“Margaret ‘Peggy’ Lott, Founder of Peggy’s Airport Café, Dies.” Anchorage Daily News, June 7, 2006, B-7.
McKinney, Debra. “Peggy’s Girls.” Anchorage Daily News, June 9, 1994, F-1, F-3.
“Mrs. Frank Lott Honored at Reception on Sunday.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 15, 1968, 9.
“Pies Are in the Oven; Peggy’s is Back Again.” Anchorage Daily News, October 31, 1971, 2.
Pratt, Laurel. “After 22 Years, Peggy is Retiring from Café.” Anchorage Daily Times, October 30, 1967, 10.