Petra Kellie says she “kind of fell into” her new job as general manager of the Freestone Inn in Mazama. Kellie took over in late September after previous managers Chris Miller and JoAnna Howard took a job at a resort in the Bahamas.
Since stepping into her new role, Kellie has been busy managing six departments and 20 employees, as well as staffing up for the busy holiday season.
“I’m still learning my job as I go along,” Kellie said. Kellie has worked at the Freestone Inn, in various departments, since 2014 when she was hired as a server. The Freestone opened for business in 1996.
Now, Kellie is charged with managing budgets, coordinating with Seattle-based parent company R.D. Merrill Co., and overseeing the hotel, two eating establishments, cabins and the extensive property under Freestone ownership.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” Kellie said. “It’s not just a hotel. There’s a lot of different directions and focus on any given day.”
Kellie said she’s looking forward to an exciting 2019. Like many businesses in the valley, the Freestone is weather-dependent and snow has been late in coming this fall. Wildfire smoke also put a damper on the peak summer months of July and August. Kellie said the inn had last-minute cancellations but fortunately, the rest of the fall brought beautiful weather.
“We stayed busy through October, which was really nice,” Kellie said, adding that things are pretty quiet now. “We joke that once the pass closes we’re the end of the earth. People have to really choose the Freestone and come out here; we don’t really get drive-bys.”
That said, Kellie sees the same guests year after year. She met one couple from the tiny town of Elmira, Washington. Kellie’s aunt and uncle are from Wilbur, a neighboring town on the drive from the Methow to Spokane. The couple was visiting in late October when things were slow and Kellie got to chatting with them, and they realized that not only did the couple know her aunt and uncle, but they also attend the same church. Now, the couple visits the Freestone every year and Kellie says she’s always happy to see them.
“We have families that book their vacations and gatherings a year in advance. Having that feeling of knowing people by name — that connection — is really nice,” Kellie said. “It’s one of the things that’s special about the Freestone. Those interactions do remind me why I like it so much here.”
Kellie didn’t think the hospitality industry was for her when she graduated from the University of Washington with an undergraduate degree in political science and history, but the Methow Valley has always been home. Kellie’s parents built a home in Pine Forest in 1981. They both worked in hospital management in the Middle East so Kellie grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.
The Pine Forest cabin was a constant in her family. She and her parents and brother Tyson — a former sales representative for the Methow Valley News — would spend holidays and summer vacations there.
“When we came back to the states, this was home,” Kellie said.
After college, Kellie thought she wanted to go into nonprofit work and was working for a political party in the country of Georgia. When the organization ran out of money, Kellie called her mother, out of a job and not knowing what to do next.
“Mom said, ‘I don’t know what to tell you but you can go to the cabin and figure things out; at least there’s a roof over your head.’”
Kellie came back to the Methow Valley and worked at Sun Mountain Lodge for a while before joining the staff at the Freestone, shortly before Miller and Howard, the previous managers, came on board.
“They said ‘Hey, we’re going to be doing all these really cool things — bar remodel, weddings, board retreats and events’ — which was something I had been familiar with and always enjoyed doing,” Kellie recalled. So, she decided to stay on through the new management transition.
The small library was converted to the hip Moonshine Bar, which has an array of delicious cocktails and a sweet little window nook that looks out over the small pond on the property.
“At the time the mandate from Merrill [the parent company] was to grow the business and reintroduce the Freestone Inn, with the new Sandy Butte Bistro. The launching of the Moonshine Bar was part of all that,” Kellie said.
The Freestone remains committed to serving the local community, as well as visitors.
“We’re committed to pricing things at an accessible point, not trying to be a super-fancy restaurant that no one’s going to come out to,” Kellie said. “Jack’s Hut [the second, more-casual dining establishment on the property] is all about beer and pizza, pool tables — a place for locals to stop in and watch a game, have a beer.”
Kellie said the Freestone will likely discontinue the Thursday-night barbecue buffet and said there are currently no mid-week local nights or happy hours on the calendar.
“We do a breakfast with Santa — that’ll be Dec. 22. That’s always fun. We do cookie decorating. We do our Christmas dinner, which tends to be a lot of in-house guests, but we also get locals who don’t feel like cooking,” Kellie said.
The holidays can be a busy, stressful time for everyone — but perhaps even more so for those who work in the hospitality industry. Kellie said the people she works with at the Freestone make it all worth it. On Thanksgiving, after serving dinner to guests, the staff had their own meal together, later in the evening.
“We have a really great core group of staff right now,” Kellie said. “We’re expanding in our busy season but the core group that’s stuck with us through these transitions — and stuck with me through this transition — it’s nice to have that family and feeling of belonging. We are at the end of the earth but it makes you more connected and tighter in some ways.”