Locals may be accustomed to stopping by the Kodiak Island Brewing Co. for some locally brewed beer. But every Monday this month has brought also a locally cooked dinner to the brewery, thanks to Diane Million.
“I love cooking and I have a love of the brewery,” Million said. The weekly meals give her an opportunity to bring those loves together. “People eating and smiling all together makes me happy.”
Million, who has worked as a bartender at the brewery for almost four years, first began serving prepared food to the brewery in January, when many Kodiak families were contending with withheld paychecks due to a prolonged government shutdown.
“We noticed a precipitous decline in our customer base, and presumably because people were stressed out monetarily,” said Ben Millstein, owner and brewer at the Kodiak Island Brewing Co. “So she thought of this idea both as a morale booster and a time for people to get together and share with each other when everybody was under stress. That’s how the whole thing started.”
During the shutdown, Millstein took a photo of the empty brewery and posted it on Facebook. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski created a poster-size copy of the photo and used it when she was addressing the Senate about the impact of the shutdown on small communities.
Earlier this month, while the threat of shutdown is no longer hovering overhead, Million decided to reinstate the weekly dinners. She chose Mondays, typically the slowest day at the brewery, which is open every day of the week from noon to 7 p.m.
“I figured, it was my gift to anyone who came in (to the brewery) on a Monday night,” she said. “Last Monday was a blast in here, and people were coming just because they knew there would be food, and that makes me happy.”
Million said that while she has been doing all the cooking, the meals are supported by the community. Fishermen and hunters have provided deer and seafood served at the weekly meals. The first meal featured wild deer donated by Island Air. Since then, every buffet-style meal has been funded through a donations jar that is placed next to the food. Diners can choose how much to contribute.
In the future, she hopes more community members will contribute to the weekly dinners, turning them into potluck-style community events.
Dinners have included lasagna and pulled pork. The meals always feature a carnivore “I-can-eat-anything” option, and a vegan, gluten-free, corn-free option “so that no one is left out,” Million said, adding that she knows many community members who have dietary restrictions.
Million is enrolled in an online culinary arts class at the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. She hopes to open a food truck, stationed in the brewery parking lot, next year.
“One of the questions that gets asked a lot when new people come in the door is, ‘Do you serve food here?’” she said. “The answer when I first started was ‘No, you’re welcome to bring something in, though.’ Now, the answer is, ‘Hopefully, by April 1 of 2020, the food truck will be out in the parking lot.’”
Her goal is to serve locally sourced meals to community members, based on wild fish and game caught in Kodiak, and locally grown vegetables.
“I love the idea of subsistence and this is a great place to do that,” Million said. She is planning to collaborate with the Kodiak Harvest Co-op to serve locally grown vegetables.
Millstein said that while the brewery doesn’t currently offer food on a regular basis, he is happy to collaborate with Million to bring local food to brewery customers.
“Obviously, there’s a symbiotic business relationship, so it’s pretty easy,” he said.
Until now, he has chosen not to add a kitchen to the brewery because of the complexity it would add to his business.
“I’d have to have three times as many employees, and I don’t want to be a chef. With turnover the way it is here, it would be a lot more complicated,” he said. “You lose a chef and all of a sudden, guess who’s in the kitchen? Me.”
April 1, the goal date for Million’s food truck, is also her anniversary with her husband, Jett. A Coast Guard member who retired last year, Jett is still awaiting his full retirement payments.
“On the first of every month, I look at the bank account and I never know if it will be tears or shouts of joy,” Million said. “I’m hoping January 1 is shouts of joy. If it is, then we can go to the bank and I can get the loan for the truck.”
For now, Million plans to offer the weekly meals throughout January. It’s a way for her to test recipes for the food truck, and also a way to draw more clientele into the brewery during the slow winter months. According to Millstein, January is the brewery’s slowest month.
“It’s great that Diane’s so into it. I like it when the community finds ways of using this space,” Millstein said. “There are a lot of ways it can be used that are compatible with running a brewery and letting our regular customers come in and get a beer, while you’ve got a few people in a corner celebrating a promotion, a baby shower or a birthday party. This falls into that category. You can come in and get a growler, or you can come in and hang out with a group having a Monday night potluck. It’s just part of the point of the brewery to be an asset for the community. When that works out in any form, it’s good for the community and the brewery. That’s one of the best things about the business.”
Earlier this year, a proposed change in state regulations threatened to limit the kinds of social gatherings that could be hosted in breweries. But after the director of the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Board was fired, the change is off the table, for now.
“That attempt was not appreciated by any part of the community,” Millstein said. “Brewery patrons and brewery owners were vocally opposed. But even people who don’t normally come in to the brewery (were opposed)... It struck a lot of people as mean-spirited and antithetical to rural Alaska lifestyle.”
“But as with any political fight, that doesn’t mean it’s over,” he said. “Who knows what the next attempt will be.”