The oldest hotel in Washington State is a gorgeous, landmark structure that sits in Tokeland, a peaceful village that overlooks Willapa Bay. Built in 1885 as a home to Elizabeth Brown and her husband William Kindred, the Tokeland Hotel has been welcoming travelers for well over a century.
Visiting the Tokeland Hotel is a pleasant brush with the past, and no matter where you come from, the cozy space invites you to relax and make yourself at home. While the building and grounds have a long, happy history, the warm spirit of hospitality lives on through the efforts of Heather Earnhardt and Zac Young.
Transplants from Seattle, Heather and Zac have carved out a home in the small, welcoming community of Tokeland. Their mission to preserve Washington’s oldest hotel for future generations and to provide a gathering place for the locals and guests has resulted in more than a place to stay. The Tokeland Hotel is a hub of entertainment, incredible dining, local and regional art, and community.
But the story behind the Tokeland Hotel’s current incarnation and what it’s like building a business in Pacific County is best told in Heather’s own words.
Why did you choose to start a business in Pacific County?
After twenty-five years, we wanted to move out of Seattle and raise our kids in the country. Zac’s dad, who lives in Grayland, heard the old Tokeland Hotel was for sale. We came down on a Friday night back in 2018 and stayed the weekend. On Monday we put an offer in. I was 100% sure it was the right thing to do, even though everyone else thought we were crazy.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
I’ve been in the restaurant industry for thirty-five years. I owned The Wandering Goose in Seattle and decided to close in December of 2020 to concentrate fully on Tokeland Hotel. We’ve been slowly redecorating, adding Persian carpets, vintage chandeliers, taxidermy, Chesterfield sofas, antique furniture and paintings. We plan on re-opening the old Capt’s Tavern on the property next year as well as Penelope’s Cabin, a cabin facing the ocean.
How do you define success?
I define success by knowing at the end of the day I’ve done my best to care for the guests coming in the door, my employees, and my vendors. I’m as authentic as they come and hope you feel the authenticity in my food and the space we have created here. It’s full of magic and love.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Well, like my last business, you never know if anyone is actually going to come once you open the doors. It’s a risk you take. But I believe in myself and stand by my intuition, and it hasn’t let me down once. We took a hotel that was only open seasonally for eight hours a week, and now we are open seven days a week, twelve hours a day.
The thank-yous we get all day and night from locals and from generations of families that have been coming here over the years makes all of the hard work the satisfying part.
What is unique about your business?
We are the oldest hotel in Washington State since 1885. We serve high-quality, Southern food made with Pacific Northwest ingredients. All of our food is made from scratch. We use only sustainable local seafood and produce from our own farm and local small farms. Our pork, beef and chicken are all from smaller farms in the Pacific Northwest.
The hotel and the grounds have been a community gathering spot since the early 1800’s and continue to be a community gathering place. There aren’t many buildings like ours that are intact and still in operation. The floors creak, the building sways a bit in the winter storms, and the ghosts make themselves known when you least expect it.
How do you view your role in the community?
Tokeland Hotel is committed to conducting our business in an ethical and socially responsible manner that aligns with our core values: Big Food, Big Love.
We strive to maintain the original spirit of the Tokeland Hotel and Restaurant as an establishment that is run by and for locals. We treat our staff like family and our family are all part of the staff. We keep a flexible, seasonal menu that is highly localized, based on what local fishermen and farmers bring us every day.
To keep our community connected, we host regular events that bring together artisans and storytelling fishermen, bagpipe players, and dog lovers. Together with our neighbors, the Shoalwater Bay Tribe, we maintain the wetlands surrounding the Hotel. We strive to maintain the original spirit of the Tokeland Hotel and Restaurant as an establishment that is run by locals for both locals and tourists. This place has deep multi-generation roots within the community and we want to continue honoring that tradition.
What made you choose your industry?
I didn’t really have a choice. My mom wanted me to get a job to “keep me out of trouble”, and the only place that would hire a thirteen-year-old kid was a local hamburger joint. From there I went on to more restaurants, got a degree in photography, and kept working in restaurants, both front of house and back of house, and fell in love with it. I have always cooked and continued to learn from all of the chefs I worked with. In 2012, I opened my own place, The Wandering Goose and in 2018, the Tokeland Hotel & Restaurant.
If you had one piece of advice to offer someone starting a business in Pacific County, what would it be?
Learn the local clientele. They will keep your business going through the off-season. Plus, they are some of the kindest, most caring individuals. We also support as many local businesses as we can by purchasing directly from the small farms and family fisheries.
For any aspiring business owner in Pacific County, here are a few key takeaways from Heather’s experience:
- Seek authenticity in the experience you create for your guests and team. It will shine through.
- A business with values resonates not only with guests but with locals.
- Creating space for the local community is essential. Locals are an incredible support system through the off-season.
- Support other local businesses in return. Running a business in Pacific County is not a siloed effort. Here, your business is part of something bigger.