Family ties and fried chicken

SPONSORED: With a little planning, who they are and what they do will never change. The new owners of The Lucky Wishbone talk about their plans to keep the integrity of the historic Anchorage restaurant intact, just as George and Peggy Brown envisioned in 1955.

SPONSORED: Inside the Lucky Wishbone, some things never change.

The beef still comes from a local butcher. The chicken is always pan-fried, never frozen. The recipes are still the same. And the same customers keep coming back, year after year, settling into the same seats to order the same fried chicken and corn muffins, hamburgers and french fries and milkshakes. When the restaurant celebrated its 50th anniversary more than a decade ago, guests included customers who had been there on opening day, according to news reports at the time.

It's part of what makes the place special.

The Anchorage eatery has been a local institution since George and Peggy Brown opened the doors in 1955. It has served — and employed — generations of Alaskans, through statehood and the Good Friday Earthquake, the pipeline boom days and into the new millennium. To many, it feels like family.

So when George Brown passed away in January 2018 at the age of 96, triggering a carefully planned change in ownership at the restaurant he loved, the restaurant's new owners, Heidi Heinrich and Carolina Stacey knew how things would have to be.

"We promised that we would do our very best to continue to do things the way he wanted, how he wanted," said Heidi Heinrich as she settled into a booth at the bustling Fifth Avenue restaurant one overcast summer morning. "And so we haven't changed. We work very, very hard to try and keep it the same, because it means things to people."

Heinrich still remembers the summer she became part of the Lucky Wishbone family: She was 16, just back from vacation, and she'd told her father she was ready to go out and get a job. She put in applications all over town, she said. Then, while waiting for the bus downtown, she met Peggy Brown, who'd seen her apply unsuccessfully at a clothing shop down the street. Brown offered her a job at the restaurant.

That was some 39 years ago, Heinrich said.

Since then, family ties at the Lucky Wishbone have only strengthened and multiplied. The granddaughter of the Lucky Wishbone's first waitress works at the restaurant today, Heinrich said. Heinrich's brother, sister and sister-in-law all worked there — now her daughter does, too.

"I've watched my customers bring their kids in, and the grandmas and grandpas bring their grandkids in, and now, in turn, those grandkids are bringing their children," Heinrich said. "It's watching generations, and watching the changes in here, and out there."

Some customers came every day, and they became like family, too, "Because they've known you," said co-owner Carolina Stacey.

Like Heinrich, Stacey also got her first job at the Lucky Wishbone when she was 16: She applied at the suggestion of a family friend, interviewed with Heinrich that day, and promptly started her first shift as a hostess, she said. That was more than 20 years ago.

Stacey eventually met her future husband at the restaurant, she said, and longtime Lucky Wishbone customers were there to celebrate her college graduation, her wedding, her baby shower and, recently, her 40th birthday.

"This is our life; Lucky Wishbone is our life," Stacey said. "And George had a hand in raising (all) of us."

By the time George Brown passed away in 2018, all the plans were in place for his successors to take the reins. Heinrich and Stacey had managed the restaurant for years, and Brown had made certain preparations to ease the transition.

"I was so afraid — I was so afraid! — that this wasn't going to be here and they were going to sell it and the Wishbone would be gone," Heinrich said.

But that's not what George Brown wanted. Continuity was important, Heinrich said. Her former employer provided new equipment to keep making all the old recipes; he repaired the aging roof. He made plans to sell it to his longtime managers and his daughter, Patricia Heller.

"It was another step in the father part; you don't just hand it over." Heinrich said.

To purchase the local restaurant, the new owners worked with First National Bank Alaska, the state's largest Alaskan-owned financial institution.

"First National was extremely helpful in regards to setting up our escrow accounts, and how it worked … the payments and our payment plan and our mortgage," Stacey said.

The business transition was smooth, the new owners said, but the personal cost was high. Everyone grieved for George Brown.

"I think the transition, more than anything, was a very heartfelt situation, because it was at a loss to us. We lost George," said Stacey. "And so for us to transfer, and all of a sudden take ownership — it was personal."

The loss reverberated throughout the restaurant. Every employee noticed the first time a new customer sat in Brown's usual counter seat. His presence still lingers within the Lucky Wishbone. And the restaurant's new owners think about it every day.

"Every day I'll be standing there making a milkshake, and I forget: 'Wait a minute, I own this place now.'" Heinrich said. "(George) had planned this for a very long time."

Across Anchorage, a lot of things have changed over the decades: Alaska's a state now, and milkshakes are no longer 35 cents. More changes will happen this year: the restaurant plans to begin opening for limited hours on Sunday, and Lucky Wishbone will be served at this year's Alaska State Fair for the first time in the restaurant's history.

But some things stay the same. The Lucky Wishbone is still a family; still a place for families; still serving some of the best fried chicken in the state. With a little planning, who they are and what they do will never change.

"George made us promise that we're not going to sell tacos here, and by golly, we will not be selling tacos!" Stacey said, laughing. "We are who we are, and we want to stay who we are. We don't want to change."

This article was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with First National Bank Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.