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This family made it on fried fish and hard work

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 30
  • Published July 29

Margaret Varlamos and her husband Don own Varley’s Swiftwater Cafe in Whittier. Photographed Thursday, July 26, 2018. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

WHITTIER — Midafternoon is supposed to be a quiet time in restaurants, but with the tables mostly full, a party of 16 walked into a seafood shack here. A party of seven and a couple of smaller groups piled in behind. There was hardly room to stand.

Margaret Varlamos waded into the crowd with a big smile and began organizing people like a camp counselor. She has the voice for it, with a Midwest edge, piercing the din, cajoling folks into thinking it's fun to wait to order fish and chips.

One of the smaller groups had some questions. With her pad in hand, Varlamos explained the options — not many other than fried fish — and listened to a dad's pride over his son's military service and this first trip to visit him in Alaska.

The tickets multiplied rapidly on a rack above the fryer, where Don Varlamos leaned in to mentally calculate how many halibut fillets to plunge into the oil. He had been breading them by hand on a worn metal platter.

The number seemed daunting, but he moved with rapid, short movements. Three younger men whizzed through the tiny galley, a kitchen so small they had to slip through shifting slots, like a basketball team running a complex play in the key.

Soon they were bringing out big trays of food, carried up high. Tension eased as the people began to eat. I saw happy faces, conversation.

Margaret cleaned up after a regular customer, saying, "I've never seen you finish your fries yet."

Two older couples told me about the RV voyage they had made together from Richmond, Virginia. I asked if they were still getting along.

One of the men answered, "Two months in a 28-foot metal box."

We laughed, but I saw more people flooding in. I couldn't believe it.

Margaret grabbed the group's attention, laughing as if they were friends arriving at a party, learned where they were from, told them about the guy who has been catching the restaurant's side spot shrimp for 22 seasons, and sold them some, fried.

"Make them feel like they're important, because they are, to us," she told me.

Don's hands never slowed down and he never looked up from under his ball cap at the tiny counter area with his tray, breading the fish, feeding the bubbling fryer.

He said, "We're in the teeth of the season."

Don Varlamos breads seafood and runs the fryer at Varley’s Swiftwater Cafe in Whittier, July 22, 2018. (Charles Wohlforth / ADN)

It was an ordinary Sunday afternoon in July at Varley's Swiftwater Café on the Whittier waterfront, part of a season that for Alaska summer workers can be like one long shift.

The restaurant opens seven days a week from the first weekend of May until the week after Labor Day. Don and Margaret Varlamos work straight through the nine-and-a-half hours the place is open, plus a couple hours before and after —roughly 12 hours daily.

Also, they drive weekly to Costco, the beer distributor, and to do laundry. Don fixes anything that's broken. Margaret does the books and paperwork.

They sleep in a shack next door. Their son runs the ice cream parlor on the other side. For five months a year.

Don is 62 and Margaret is 56. But they don't complain about working on their feet all day, every day of the summer. Until I asked, it seemed they hadn't given much thought to how hard they work.

"It is fun," Don said. "I take pride in how the food comes out and in my estimation I am probably the fastest and the cleanliest fry cook around. By the time we get into the teeth of the season, like right now, it gets a little arduous. But I was a sheet metal worker for almost 30 years, and almost too dumb to do anything but work."

"We do have fun," Margaret said. "I don't know where the energy comes from. I think it's just who we are innately, and we get a huge sense of pride in knowing people love the food and love the atmosphere."

They got the restaurant in 1997. It was Don's dream. Margaret wanted an insurance agency. He found it for sale in the newspaper and they bought it, knowing next to nothing about running a restaurant.

"I got on the train and I said, 'Oh my God, what did I do?' " Margaret said.

In those days, Whittier, just 60 miles from Anchorage, could be reached only on a train through a 2.5-mile tunnel. But the state was talking about letting cars go through the tunnel, and the couple thought that made the restaurant a good business opportunity. And they were right.

It was quiet until the tunnel opened in 2000. But on the first day that cars came through, a long line led out the door of the restaurant for the whole 12 hours it was open.

Don and Margaret had no help in those days. And they had a 6-week-old baby. Margaret ran around all day with the boy on her hip or handed him to women in line.

Margaret Varlamos takes orders amid a heavy rush of customers at Varley’s Swiftwater Cafe on July 22, 2018. (Charles Wohlforth / ADN)

By the end of that first crazy day, even her boundless energy was spent. She sat holding the baby, too tired to cry. Don, like any good husband, knew it was a moment for dramatic action.

That was when the restaurant got its identity.

"I took out my pocket knife and started plucking everything off the menu that wasn't seafood-related," he said. "We were going to streamline this thing so it wasn't so hard."

The place has developed its history since. The ceiling is hung with nets, coral, hockey sticks — everything with a story. The boys who were babies grew up helping run the restaurant and now are men.

Having a successful restaurant is a point of pride, but it also provides income they need. The profits supplement Don's union retirement and Margaret's income as an insurance consultant.

"When I'm awake I'm working," Margaret said. "I have what I consider a very fun life."

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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