Sale of Chewuch Inn completed in November
By Julia Babkina
It’s a new era for the Chewuch Inn, which after 28 years of local ownership was purchased by Frank Hotels in November.
Frank Hotels owns 13 properties in Washington, Oregon and Florida. Their properties include the Winthrop Inn and the Methow River Lodge in Winthrop. The Chewuch Inn, also in Winthrop, is their third acquisition in the valley.
Dan and Sally Kuperberg, who owned and actively managed the inn through five different presidents, said they sold the inn to have more time for personal pursuits. For Dan, that includes flying his plane in Twisp and for Sally, having more time to paint in her studio.
The couple has worked especially hard the last three years due to the pandemic.
“I think I went on one hike in the valley this last year,” said Sally. “We’ve been talking about [selling the inn] for a while. We used to go to international innkeeping conferences and seven years was usually normal that an innkeeper would last, 14 was pushing it, and so we kind of doubled that —28 years.”
“We defied the odds,” added Dan.
As a token of appreciation, the Kuperbergs recently took their staff on a trip to Hawaii, but this was not their staff’s first trip. Twelve years ago, the Kuperbergs launched an annual getaway for their employees.
“It was a great way to say thank you for a year of hard work, spend time together away from our everyday roles, and there was always the benefit of ‘team building’ without engineering it,” said Dan. “We started with trips to Seattle and it morphed into Las Vegas, San Diego and Hawaii. We stuck with Hawaii because it’s hard to beat a weeklong stay in December when you live in the Methow.”
The success of the Chewuch Inn is tied to the success of Dan and Sally as a couple, pulling together through personal and business challenges. The couple lived on site and worked together 24/7 their first eight years of ownership until they could afford to hire staff.
They continued to be closely involved with the inn even when their staff numbers increased. They trained their staff to be innkeepers, which meant everyone had to learn a little bit of everything, from office administration to baking. Training took up a chunk of time.
“[It was about] how to get the best product out of what you learn,” said Sally.
Operating a business in the Methow came with its own set of challenges.
“We’ve had mud slides close Highway 20, obviously we’ve had wildfires, we’ve been evacuated, we had a flood at the inn by a snow plow that snapped off the fire hydrant and flooded the entire building,” said Dan, adding that they served breakfast the next morning after a restoration company worked on the property through the night. “We had the 2008 financial meltdown, we had the Canadian exchange rate go wildly high when that was 40% of our business. Global pandemic thrown in, just to test you. I think we demonstrated that we could rise to the challenge as many business owners did in this community.”
The Kuperbergs were also not immune from personal challenges. Two years into their business, Sally was diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia. She underwent chemotherapy, radiation, and a bone marrow transplant from an unrelated donor. She recovered fully.
“The outpouring of support from this community was overwhelming,” said Dan. “It was a humbling experience and something we will never forget. It has been a guiding force in how we see and care for the people around us every day.”
The Kuperbergs first came to the valley in the late 1980s for family reunions in the winter and backpacked in the Pasayten wilderness during the summer. They met in high school on Vashon Island but started dating after graduation during a summer festival on the island.
When Dan’s corporate job took him to Chicago, they decided they both wanted to leave the corporate world and return to the valley. At that time, remote work wasn’t an option — they needed a brick-and-mortar business.
“Here’s what I find ironic — the current term is ‘working remotely.’ In 1994, moving to Winthrop was ‘working remotely,’” said Dan.
“We wanted to live somewhere where we could play in our backyard, and that’s what we love so much about this area,” said Sally. “You could also be a part of the community and help the community. It’s a small enough community you could do that.”
“We didn’t want to be anonymous in the city. We had done that for a little while and it just didn’t appeal to us,” added Dan. “We’re outdoor enthusiasts, and that was a deciding factor.”
Looking for opportunity
The Kuperbergs explored different business opportunities in the area.
“We didn’t have anything specific,” said Sally. “We both had quite a bit of history in customer service and management, so we knew we could operate cash registers, money, customers.”
Dan’s parents visited the Methow and sent pictures and information to the Kuperbergs by fax. One of those pictures was of the Chewuch Inn. The Kuperbergs looked at it once and bought it.
“It was affordable,” they acknowledged.
The inn began as a simple house built in the 1930s to house workers for the nearby fish hatchery. The hatchery eventually deemed the house surplus and auctioned it in the early 1980s. Hank Damman, who purchased the house and moved it to its current location, wanted to transform it into an eight-room inn. Before his dream was realized, Hank passed away from a stroke. The Kuperbergs purchased the inn from Hank’s widow, Jean Damman, in 1994.
At the time, the inn had eight unfinished rooms and very little business. Sally began running the inn by herself on Labor Day weekend. Her only customers were the wildland firefighters who were battling a blaze in the upper valley. She rented the rooms for $40 per night.
The first year was a challenge, with gross revenues of only $18,000. One of the biggest challenges was the inn’s location. It was off the beaten path at a time when location was king. Finding accommodation meant looking in the yellow pages, a brochure, or finding lodging once in town. The hotels on the main thoroughfare filled up first.
“We were two, three blocks off Highway 20 and nobody went past the Hotel Rio Vista,” said Sally. “[The inn] wasn’t established. It had been a work in progress. There had been no grand opening.”
The Kuperbergs made connections with other local hotels in the area to refer customers to their inn when their hotels were full.
“We got customers when every other hotel in town was full,” said Dan. “There was a lot of working together during that time frame. You talked to the other owners.”
The Kuperbergs also had to work on marketing campaigns to attract customers. Sally developed breakfast recipes that included the now famous Chewuch Inn scones, which originated from her father’s English side of the family. The recipe was sold with the inn to the new owners.
“We weren’t on the river, we weren’t on Highway 20. We were an old building on a gravel parking lot,” said Dan. “We had to work hard, and that’s part of where starting to offer breakfast was the hook for us. We certainly hung our hat on that and went after it.”
The Kuperbergs also partnered with local businesses for “Stay and Play” packages such as horseback and sleigh rides, mountain biking, river rafting, snowmobiling, ski passes, and dinners at local restaurants. Advertising was primarily direct mail.
“We quit jobs to do this voluntarily, but there was no plan B. There was never any idea that it wasn’t going to work. We were in our early 30s. You just put your head down and kept on going,” said Dan. “The town was on a trajectory that it was going to continue to build.”
Today, tourism benefits from a hotel sales tax collected by most municipalities. That money is used for tourist-related activities such as maintaining bathrooms and operating the Winthrop Barn, but in 1994, there was little assistance from the state or county for tourism. The Winthrop Barn, for example, was built by volunteers and fundraisers like “Casino Nights” were held to pay for operating costs.
“We sat in the back of the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce meetings listening to these folks that had started the town of Winthrop on the path of tourism,” said Dan. “At the time, it was largely a summer tourism season and as a business owner, if you didn’t have a good summer season, it was going to be a long winter!”
When the Kuperbergs bought their inn in 1994, local businesses had to chip into the Chamber of Commerce for things like marketing brochures. The Kuperbergs worked with other local businesses to print brochures for direct mail and distribution to the west side. It was a different era. Dan showed a brochure for the Seattle market from 1998. There were no emails, no websites, and businesses used 1-800 numbers so customers wouldn’t have to pay for long distance.
There were also outlets such as the Seattle Times, travel magazines like Sunset and AAA, and radio commercials to attract tourists. The couple complemented each other’s talents. Dan worked on the campaigns while Sally, with her graphic design background, designed the logos.
Dan was instrumental in getting the 3% hotel tax passed in Winthrop to develop the area’s tourism industry. He managed the program for many years with the Chamber of Commerce board of directors, which was comprised of local businesses. The chamber gave the fund’s management back to the town and today, a tax advisory board determines how to spend the revenue. The money is used to attract tourists, “heads and beds,” as Dan calls it, and pays for things like social media, advertisements, billboards, and a director to administer the marketing program.
The Kuperbergs also supported other businesses in the valley by buying locally as much as possible.
“We promoted Winthrop and we tried hard to promote others in Winthrop through the process,” said Dan. “We were all in this together.”
Reflecting on the Chewuch Inn’s role in the community, Dan commented, “I think we provided comfortable, affordable lodging in the valley for many years. [It was a] safe place where people felt comfortable and that was a good value. That was our lane. We weren’t Sun Mountain, and we weren’t the discount bargain place. We were a home away from home for a lot of these people and I think that was the appeal.”
“Because the owners were involved, it’s like any business you walk into when the owners are standing there behind the counter — there is something different about it.” he continued. “They’re the ones seating you in a restaurant or they’re the ones grinding and making your coffee for you. There is just that attachment, investment, and appreciation that this person is operating this business.”
“The goal was we want to live in Winthrop. The Chewuch Inn was a total success because we’ve gotten to do that for 28 years. That’s how you measure it,” Dan said. “It’s not about the money. We got to live the life we wanted to live and we have made some fantastic relationships along the way, from people we worked with to the people we served at the inn all the years to the fellow business community.”
When it came time to sell the inn, the couple embarked on a behind the scenes grassroots campaign to see if anyone would be interested. Eventually, they listed the inn with a hotel broker.
“It was our hope that a local couple would be interested in buying it and want to live the dream, buy themselves a job in this community. That’s what we always envisioned,” said Dan. “That was our hope because we love the community and think it continues to thrive if people are invested in it, including the business community.”
The inn sold in six months, start to finish.
“It was much faster than we anticipated,” said Dan. “The town has gotten big enough that it’s now on the radar for money outside the valley to invest in it. It’s large enough that it’s of interest to investors because they can buy a business that is profitable and run it from afar. So we’re seeing more and more of that, and that’s just the fact that the town has grown. It has been successful and people see that and they’re investing in it.”
Frank Hotels, based in Kelso, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Reflecting on their 28 years at the inn, the Kuperbergs connect their success to strong relationships and customer service.
“It worked for us. Everything else took care of itself,” said Dan. “There will always be a need for that. As much as we pull towards this self-serve, go on the website and do it yourself, there is always going to be an attraction for someone that will help in a customer service role. We all know that. When you finally have to break down and call someone, and they actually help you and come through for you, it’s like, you feel good about that company. That will always be en vogue — customer service. That is the world we came out of.”