Boat school works to keep ‘iconic’ cafe afloat

Katie Kowalski arts@ptleader.com
Posted 7/11/17

The Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding’s plan to help bring back the Ajax Cafe, announced July 5, is what Marrowstone Island resident Bruce Carlson calls a “win-win-win.”

It’s a win …

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Boat school works to keep ‘iconic’ cafe afloat

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The Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding’s plan to help bring back the Ajax Cafe, announced July 5, is what Marrowstone Island resident Bruce Carlson calls a “win-win-win.”

It’s a win for the cafe. It’s a win for the boat school. And it’s a win for the community, he said.

For more than three decades, the boat school and the cafe shared qualities that connected them beyond their neighboring proximity to each other in Lower Port Hadlock.

“They’re both homegrown,” said boat school executive director Betsy Davis. “There’s a playfulness in both; there’s a commitment to community in both,” she said.

“We’ve had this long relationship with students,” said Ajax manager-owner Kristan McCary. The cafe building had been a place to live and work, eat and celebrate. “It’s always been that kind of neighborhood thing between the two.”

And now a collaboration has developed between the organizations, one that would bring the cafe back to the community, which in October was shuttered due to a lack of septic capacity. The collaboration also would expand the wooden boat school campus.

On July 5, the boat school officially announced its plan to purchase and lease out the Ajax property to the cafe and install a septic drain field on its upper campus. The purchased property would expand the school and also connect its upper and lower campuses, which now are separate.

The community would see both the return of a beloved icon and growth in the local maritime trade. “They each win, and we locals win,” said Carlson.

CATALYST

Nearly half of the funds required to purchase the property have been raised, thanks to private donations, and the boat school is now reaching out to the community to raise the remaining funds through a Save the Ajax Cafe, Grow the Boat School campaign.

After some months of planning, the project gained momentum in April when an anonymous person donated $100,000 of the $375,000 needed to purchase the property. “It was a big deal, it was a wonderful catalyst,” said Davis.

Following that, $55,000 more was raised, thanks to other private donations from invested individuals like Carlson. As of July 11, donations are now at $163,000.

Carlson said one of the things that struck him about the project was its out-of-the-box solution to the issue.

“When passionate and dedicated local business owners like Kristan mix with forward-thinking and courageous business leaders like Betsy, you can be assured something exciting and truly wonderful is going to happen,” he said.

MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL

Improving the navigation between the upper and lower campuses and exploring ways to expand have been goals of the boat school since it adopted a five-year strategic plan in January 2016.

“At the time we did that, we never even conceived of purchasing the Ajax property,” said Davis. The school moved ahead with other projects in its plan until the fall of last year, when the Ajax was forced to close.

Then began conversations with McCary, and the idea to purchase the Ajax property became a way for the boat school to both save the cafe and also move forward with its strategic plan to expand the campus.

The lease would be a 30-year contract, with a reasonable renewal guarantee clause, said Davis, and the boat school is not seeking to make a profit.

The purchase of the property is contingent on county health department approval for the design of the new septic system. The boat school’s wastewater treatment system designer currently is working closely with the county on that design, Davis said.

“I am optimistic that our final design will fully meet their requirements,” said Davis, noting that everyone is working hard to get the Ajax open and running again as soon as possible.

“It’s so authentic and unique,” she said of the cafe. “The Ajax has really fed this community in more ways than just beautiful food.”

ICONIC

In the 1880s, the building the Ajax Cafe occupies was the home of Samuel Hadlock, the namesake of Port Hadlock. Later, it became a community center.

“It’s always been this epicenter of the Lower Hadlock neighborhood,” said McCary. “It’s an iconic piece of Hadlock.”

In 1977, Joe Rutter opened the cafe. McCary, who had visited the restaurant as a child with her father and later became a waitress, bought the business in 2004 with two fellow employees, just before the boat school moved to Port Hadlock. She became sole owner in 2007 and now is one of six employee-owners. She also owns and rents out the cottages in Lower Hadlock.

Since its founding, the Ajax Cafe has been more than just a restaurant. It’s a place where people have celebrated weddings, anniversaries and birthdays. It’s brought community together, and nurtured its employee-owners.

“It wasn’t like a normal job where you’d go and clock in and then leave,” said Ajax employee-owner Marina Diehl, who’s been working at the Ajax since 2007, when she was 15. “The whole time in high school, I grew up around these people,” she said. “The Ajax was like a second family to me.”

SUPPORT

Sonja Mathews, a boat school board member, moved to the area last year and said she was surprised by the community support she’s seen not only for the Ajax but also for the boat school.

“The community is helping us do things that we didn’t even think were possible.”

The support and the devotion to community she’s observed since moving here have reaffirmed that this is a community in which she wants to live.

She said she recently was attending a gardening class when she overheard two women talking about community gardens and how they’re different here. Most of the time if there’s a community garden, each person has their own plot,” she heard them say. “But in the Port Townsend Bay area, people have community gardens where everyone plans, harvests and cultivates the rows together.”

And that’s the spirit she’s seeing in this plan to bring back the Ajax and the support it’s received.

“I think people [here] believe they are their brother’s keeper,” she said.

All funds donated to Save the Ajax, Grow the Boat School are tax deductible. To donate, visit nwswb.edu/savetheajax.

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