Brothers Scott and Stan Selman can point out exactly where Scott’s daughter, Cheyenne, 4 or 5 at the time, tripped over a stair and split open her head on the corner of the 1950s-era wood and Formica-top bar that curves through Club Paris.
The Anchorage steakhouse, with its pink neon sign glowing on Fifth Avenue and its mostly original interior decor, has been a long-standing fixture downtown. The restaurant is riddled with Selman family memories, especially for Cheyenne, who grew up in the place.
“Oh, we got a little bit of history around here,” said Stan, 63.
The building, which is just shy of 100 years old, was once a funeral home, and Club Paris’ original owners founded the restaurant in 1957, Stan said. The Selmans bought it in the ’70s, and Cheyenne, now 27 and bearing a small scar on her head, is a graduate of a culinary arts school and helps manage the family business.
In its 60-plus years, the restaurant has survived two major earthquakes, ash from volcanic eruptions and two economic recessions — but nothing so bad as the coronavirus pandemic, said Scott, 66.
“COVID has brought us to our knees,” said Debbie Selman, Scott’s wife.
Club Paris is in survival mode. Like many bars, restaurants and breweries in Anchorage, it is clinging on while the pandemic clobbers the hospitality industry and while the third city-mandated shutdown of indoor dining remains in effect through the end of the month.
With the small family restaurant’s business slashed by more than 75%, the livelihoods of the family and their employees are at stake.
“If we don’t get help soon, we’re going to go underwater,” Debbie said. “We’re treading water for now.”
‘Nothing’s changed except the price’
In some ways, Club Paris is different from other Anchorage restaurants, though many have also been around just as long. The restaurant prides itself on its traditions.
“Grandpa always said, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’ ” Cheyenne said.
Its employees have been unionized since the ’50s — something almost unheard of in restaurants — and its employees have health care, a living wage and pensions.
The brothers’ late father, Charlie Selman, was a geophysicist who worked for Richfield Oil Corp. and helped discover Alaska’s largest oilfield in Prudhoe Bay.
He worked in an office on a nearby corner and would “drink his lunch” at Club Paris regularly, Debbie said. Then Selman bought into the restaurant as a silent partner in 1976, and took over operations as sole owner in the ’80s.
Big business deals were hashed out in the joint — forgotten moments in the state’s history, Stan said.
Club Paris’ rich past hangs in the atmosphere like a scent, evident in the framed objects lining the walls: In one corner is a hand-drawn original dinner menu from the day the restaurant opened, designed by its first chef, Jewel Hawkins. On the opposite wall is an article about Selman’s work as a geophysicist. In another corner, an essay handwritten by Scott as a young boy, who is now 66, describes his experience of the 1964 earthquake.
Stan is responsible for the restaurant’s upkeep and he keeps the place in its original state as best as possible, Scott said.
“We’ve prided ourselves on consistency throughout the years,” Scott said. “Nothing’s changed except the price.”
Where pieces of the restaurant must be replaced or remodeled, Stan preserves what he can — like squares of original wallpaper from the women’s restroom, which hang framed and include some original graffiti: “Pierre is a bum lay!” is scrawled in one frame.
Once, while remodeling the walk-in cooler, Stan found old cardboard boxes from the funeral home lining the walls. The boxes once contained caskets from Sound Casket Co. in Everett, Washington.
“They used to do the embalming where the kitchen is — now we just pickle at the bar,” Stan joked.
The family business, its clientele and even some employees are generational; children, once grown, have gone to work at the restaurant in their parents’ footsteps, Stan said. Some employees have worked there for 10, 20 and 35 years.
“Customers come in and it’s like the same steak they got 30 years ago,” Stan said. “The generational business is just wonderful. I mean, this place has survived on people having kids and their kids supporting us now.”
But it also means the restaurant is similar to a “one-trick pony,” Scott said. He worries that younger generations are bringing different eating habits to the table.
And now, with the pandemic upending the dining industry, it’s critical that the restaurant adjusts.
“We’re trying to adapt every way we can,” Scott said.
‘All about hope’
On Monday afternoon, the rows of dimly lit booths that stretch along the restaurant walls sat empty. Occasionally the loud ring of a phone interrupted the quiet with a customer calling in an order, which, when ready, a server would place in a bag and run outside to the curb.
“To have this place empty in the daytime is eerie,” Stan said.
Closing to indoor dining has created a host of new problems for the restaurant. Knowing how much food to order or how many employees to schedule for a shift is nearly impossible.
“There’s no telling what’s going to happen each day,” Cheyenne said.
But they’ve ramped up their social media presence, sold gift certificates and created paper menus with QR codes to scan.
The restaurant has cultivated a reputation for its quality steaks, seafood, prime rib and its lunchtime ground filet mignon burgers. Much of it is fare that doesn’t translate easily from high-end, sit-down dining into a to-go business. Still, Cheyenne has helped the restaurant pivot to curbside service and a smaller to-go-only menu.
Stan said Club Paris has followed every mandate and precaution throughout the pandemic.
For Scott, who had a lung transplant four years ago, carefully following precautions is “a life-or-death matter,” he said.
The business suffered while under capacity limits, but also recognized that restrictions like not allowing customers to sit at the bar are necessary for the safety of customers and employees, Stan said.
“The trust and faith that our customers have in us — they know we follow protocol. And our employees know that we’ll take care of them, even in these hard times. And those two things are priceless,” Scott said.
But with their business currently decimated under the third mandated shutdown, “I feel like we’re being punished for the actions of others,” Stan said. It feels unfair and like they have been singled out, he said.
City leaders and health officials say the shutdown is necessary and that it is working. Daily COVID-19 case numbers have been declining.
Still, the industry has borne a large burden. Some restaurants and bars have closed entirely. At Club Paris, the shutdown means they’ve had to cut employee hours during the holidays, rotating them during the month for two weeks on, two weeks off.
“It’s something that we have to get through,” server Lainey Rourke said. “I think we’ve pulled together very well as a crew here — we’re kind of like a family here, and so we just hold each other up and pull through it and kind of know that things are going to get better on the other side.”
Now, over the span of a week or more, Club Paris brings in only about how much money it would make during a single shift before the pandemic, Debbie said.
But the family is grateful for several things. They have a loyal group of customers who have supported the business during the pandemic and longtime employees who have stuck by them through thick and thin. And the Selmans own the property, so they don’t have a monthly rent bill. Without that, they might have gone under already, they said.
The federal, state and municipal aid the restaurant has received so far has kept it alive, Debbie said. The Paycheck Protection Program loan lifted them back up after a long and unexpected “hunker-down” in the spring. Club Paris has received about $400,000 in economic aid so far, Stan said.
“That’s still a drop in the bucket compared to our lost revenue,” Stan said.
In a normal year, from the month of May through the winter holidays, the building is hopping, Scott said. Christmas garlands, lights and decorations would join the artifacts decorating the walls.
“This place is usually festive, lit up, loud,” Scott said.
But this year, just a few lights hang outside. The restaurant will stay closed from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day, when it can hopefully open its doors again to dine-in customers, Scott said.
“Things are going to get better. Put one foot in front of the other, keep doing the work, do the next right thing and things unfold. And that’s what keeps us going more than anything — a sense of faith,” Scott said.
“It’s all about hope right now,” he said. “As long as we can open our doors, we’ll be fine.”