J&W’s celebrates three decades
A family affair continues at J&W’s with three generations of family at the helm: (from left) Randy Churchill, Sr., Celsee Churchill, Carol Churchill, and Joann Rinehart.
If you were in Wrangell in August 1982, think back to that moment for just a second.
Ronald Reagan was president, gasoline came in at just above $1.50 a gallon, and a gallon of milk would cost a Wrangellite a little more than $2.50.
And if you were in Wrangell on Aug. 5, 1982, you were also witness to the grand opening of a business that stands proudly in downtown to this day.
J&W’s Fast Food, which currently calls 120 Front Street home, began as a handbuilt drive thru restaurant located at the dock-fill, across from Angerman’s Inc., near the current Northland Services facility.
The business was the brainchild of Randy and Carol Churchill, who with a lot of hard work and the cooking of Carol’s mother, Joann Rinehart, made the dream into a reality.
“My son-in-law, Randy, and my daughter Carol, along with everybody else we knew, were busy building it in ’82,” Rinehart said. “They built it and went into business that August. They built the original building on the fill, out near Northland. We had a lot of friends helping too. It was a drive-in at the time, so you’d drive up to the side of the building and order your food.”
At the time, the Totem and Stikine bars, as well as both wood mills, were running and operational – and led to a tremendous few years at the beginning for the Churchill’s bottom line.
“We were able to keep our hours from 10 a.m. to midnight every day,” Carol added. “And we were then lucky enough to get our hands on the piece of land we have now.”
After purchasing the land, which is nestled between the Totem Bar and Greif Building, which was once a brewery in the city, Randy and Carol picked up and moved their operation.
“We moved it here onto a foundation that Randy built,” she added. “We were closed for one day only during the move, and after that, he started building on top of it to make our apartments and to expand our storage area.”
One of the favorite menu items the restaurant serves is a mouthwatering chicken meal called the “Randy Burger,” and although it wasn’t on sale on opening day, it will remain there for good.
“The Randy Burger was invented when my son (Randy, Jr.,) was in high school,” Carol said. “They all grew up in the restaurant and he was down here one day making his own lunch. He came up with this concoction that included chicken patties, bacon, and the tartar sauce.”
According to Carol, a few of his friends also tried the new burger and fell in love with it.
“We put it on the menu and it’s our number one seller to this day,” she added.
The two chicken patties, bacon, Swiss cheese, lettuce and bun on the burger wouldn’t be the same without one special, top-secret ingredient, however.
“The tartar sauce is a family recipe and we keep it as a secret recipe,” she added.
A few years ago, Randy and Carol decided they wanted to sell the business and, for a while, no offers seemed to come. Then came Randy, Jr., and his wife, Celsee Churchill.
“It had been 30 years and my mother, Joann Rinehart, is retiring. I wanted to be out of it myself, and I wanted to keep it in the family, so I was blessed with my daughter-in-law and Randy. They want to purchase it, so Celsee has been managing it since we opened in 2012. We’re in the works of having her take over.”
The sale comes, Carol adds, due to her decision to retire as well.
“It has been tough in recent years and business has slowed,” she said. “Compared to 30 years ago there were a lot more people in town. It was a lot busier back then. These days, I have closed it down for a period of time and that will continue differently under Celsee.”
The reason for a month-long closure planned by the Churchills isn’t all for a lack of business, however.
“We gut the place every winter,” Carol said. “We do a thorough cleaning and painting so we can start out fresh.”
J&W’s Fast Foods as it looked shortly after opening in 1982. The restaurant was previously located at the dockfill across from Angerman’s Inc. before moving to its current location on Front Street.
And starting out fresh usually means a whole new crop of employees – culled from the ranks of Wrangell High School’s student body.
“I have no idea how many kids we have employed here,” she said with a laugh. “I really couldn’t tell you because there are so many. This, normally, is where all the high schoolers get their first job. We have supplied many, many jobs for teenagers.”
Celsee, in between scrubbing the kitchen and prepping for another day’s work, said the chance to own J&W’s is a once in a lifetime opportunity for her and her husband.
“I think the reason Randy and I are doing this is that it will be good for our family, and it’s something I really enjoy doing. My grandma and mom have been doing it for 30 years, so I feel lucky that I get to learn from them before I take it over.”
And according to Celsee, the Randy Burger will always be on the menu.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she said.