Whitehorse restaurateur says goodbye to her 'ridiculous little joint' after 21 years

Donna Novecosky, longtime owner of the Klondike Rib & Salmon restaurant in Whitehorse, is calling it a day. She won't be re-opening the popular seasonal eatery this spring. 'There's so much this place has given to me,' she said. (Dave White/CBC - image credit)
Donna Novecosky, longtime owner of the Klondike Rib & Salmon restaurant in Whitehorse, is calling it a day. She won't be re-opening the popular seasonal eatery this spring. 'There's so much this place has given to me,' she said. (Dave White/CBC - image credit)

Donna Novecosky, owner of Whitehorse's Klondike Rib & Salmon, doesn't miss a beat when asked how her restaurant endured for years as one of Whitehorse's most unique and beloved eateries.

"Because it's cute as pie. It's so cute. It's a wall tent for crying out loud!" Novecosky said.

"It's a ridiculous little joint, and crazy little things happen in here and we do weird stuff."

But nothing lasts forever and Novecosky is ready to pass the torch to anybody who wants to buy the seasonal business and take over. She has no plans to open this spring.

"Just thinking about it is heartbreaking. I'm pacing. I'm pacing," she said over the phone to CBC News.

The downtown restaurant would typically open for the season each May and bustle with activity through the busy summer months before closing up again in the fall. It was hugely popular with both locals and tourists; Yukoners would tend to dine there in the spring or fall, while tourists packed the place through the summer.

It's housed in one of the city's oldest buildings. The dining room was originally a tent frame bakery, opened around around 1902. It later housed a mail and freight business in the 1920s, and the old name "Klondike Airways" — a misnomer since the freight business never managed to acquire a plane — has been repainted on the side. Still later it was a carpentry shop, and eventually became a restaurant in the 1990s.

D. Peacock/Yukon Historical and Museums Association
D. Peacock/Yukon Historical and Museums Association

Novecosky took over the existing eatery in 2002 almost on a whim. She'd never owned or managed a business before.

A friend of hers owned the restaurant at the time. She recalls walking by one day when her friend leaned out the window and asked if Novecosky could help her out that night and do some dishes.

"I said absolutely, no problem. So I did the dishes that night. And I walked around here ... thinking, oh my gosh, if this was my place, I would want to do this, I'd want to do this... And at the end of the night I said, 'If you're ever interested in selling this little place, please let me know,'" Novecosky recalled.

"And she said, 'Would you believe we're interested in selling this little place?'"

Novecosky said she didn't even think about the place as a business so much as a local gathering spot.

"Just a place for people to come and feel appreciated and welcome, and like they were a part of it," she said.

Klondike Rib & Salmon
Klondike Rib & Salmon

Part of the restaurant's appeal has been its eclectic menu, including plenty of wild game like bison and elk, and of course salmon. But another major part is the decor. It's packed with quirky historical artifacts, many from the Yukon but some from Novecosky's family farm Saskatchewan. The walls are also covered with mounted antlers and photos of everybody from George Chuvalo to Peter Mansbridge.

And then there were those "crazy little things" that might happen anytime. Novecosky recalls one night she took out a table so she could dance with "some cowboy" to Johnny Cash. Another time, she challenged a "seven-foot guy from Scandinavia" to a leg-wrestling match in the dining room.

"He wanted to have one of my gold pans. And I'm like, 'there's no way you're getting a gold pan unless you could beat me in a leg wrestle,'" she recalled.

"And I almost had him."

'I think I've given it my best'

Making the decision to retire was "horrible," Novecosky said, but she feels like she had little choice. Some long-time, trusted employees were not coming back this season and she couldn't imagine carrying on without them.

"Sometimes my energy is going all over the place, and I need somebody to harness and keep it in a straight flow, you know? And so if I was let loose with a whole new team, Lord only knows what would happen," she said.

Dave White/CBC
Dave White/CBC

"I tried to fight it at first and think, how can I fix this? What can I do, you know?"

In the end, she decided that she'd been given a sign. It was time to let it go and move on.

But it's still not easy.

"I've given 21 years to this community, which I absolutely love. And this community has also given me 21 years, which I'm so grateful for," she said.

"I think I've given it my best for two decades and I feel like it's time for someone else."

Novecosky said it's possible someone could take over the business. She says everything's there — the recipes, the business model, or the freedom to make it something new.

Dave White/CBC
Dave White/CBC

"All you have to do is come pick up the key to the front door," she said.

"It's a lot of work. But you know what? It's worth every minute of it. On so many levels, there's so much this place has given to me."

Looking back at the last two decades, she says she wouldn't change a thing. Well — maybe one thing.

"Beat that guy in the leg wrestle," she said.