By Don Nelson
Chris Miller and JoAnna “JoJo” Howard had a Methow moment the first time they saw the valley and the Freestone Inn.
“We couldn’t even believe it,” Howard said. “This area is stunning.”
“When we came over that pass for the first time,” Miller said, the husband-and-wife team knew without a doubt that they wanted the job they were applying for: to manage the Freestone Inn and adjacent properties at the historic Wilson Ranch near Mazama.
Miller and Howard took over at Freestone on June 1, and will manage the property for Seattle-based R.D. Merrill Co., which now owns it.
Kerry Kozuki and David Byers had operated the inn for the previous three years under a lease-purchase agreement. The inn opened in 1996 and has passed through various ownership structures over the years.
Miller and Howard are both hospitality industry veterans. They had most recently worked at the Hotel Oregon in McMinnville, Oregon, which is owned by McMenamins, a Portland-based operator of inns, restaurants, brew pubs concert venues and theaters throughout the Northwest. Miller had been general manager, and Howard oversaw sales and catering. Before that, they held similar positions at the Lodge at Suttle Lake in Sisters, Oregon — a property they said is similar to Freestone.
Miller, a native of Texas, previously owned a computer business in Napa, California, and a vineyard near Salem, Oregon, where he started a winery called Namaste Vineyards.
After a little more than a month on the job, the couple is clearly dazzled by the Freestone property, which includes cabins and a small lake.
“We’re very optimistic about what this place has to offer,” Miller said.
The couple say they have already discovered that the valley has what Miller calls “lots of heart and soul.”
“There is something about this area that is special, a real sense of community,” Howard said.
Howard, a native Oregonian, said she grew up in a rural, small-town atmosphere and welcomes the Methow ambience.
“Small-town people take care of each other and meet each other’s needs,” Howard said.
Miller and Howard intend for Freestone Inn to be just as welcoming to the community. They want locals to feel as comfortable visiting as tourists, and to see the inn as a friendly destination point.
To that end, they are revising the menu, adding breakfast, installing outdoor furniture on the patio, converting the small library off of the lodge lobby/great room into a boutique bar, and hosting live music events on the lawn. They have initiated a happy hour from 3-5 p.m. every day with special pricing and menu.
Head chef Layne Paulson, who started in February, will use fresh local foods and ingredients to create a more accessible menu, Miller and Howard said.
They also plan to reduce the rates for rooms and cabins, and to offer special lodging deals for locals.
“We need them [local residents] to have a reason to come here, and we want it to be a place to come back to,” Howard said. “And we want it to be a great experience of customer service. You have to love hospitality to be in it.”
They also want it to be a good place to work, the couple said, and are recruiting new employees for a variety of positions. They can offer nearby housing for several employees, the couple said.
Miller and Howard say they believe it’s important for everyone in the valley’s lodging industry to support each other. “It should not be me versus my neighbor,” Miller said.
The couple — who were recruited for the Freestone positions — are to some extent the hospitality industry’s version of corporate turnaround experts, brought in to revive properties. Despite its setting and other amenities, the inn has sometimes struggled to attract a steady clientele.
Miller and Howard are literally tearing down any barriers they see to a welcoming atmosphere. The first day he was on the job, Miller said, he went around the property and took down any sign telling visitors what they could or should not do. “I want people to know what they can do,” he said.
“Our motto is, ‘we say yes until we can’t say yes any more,’” Howard said.