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Owners happy with Whiskey Creek changes

KEYPORT — Stuffed deer and moose heads once adorned the walls of the 50-year-old tavern, but Whiskey Creek Steakhouse now has a "clean and crisp" contemporary look, and the owners are happy.

Pat and Karan Ziarnik, owners of Whiskey Creek, received an "injection" of fresher paint, simpler decor and tastier sauces by the Food Network show "Restaurant: Impossible." The show filmed on Sept. 27-28 and premiered Jan. 2.

The Ziarniks first wrote to the Food Network in 2010, a little more than a year after the restaurant was first affected by the downward economy. Producers contacted them this summer to tell them the show was a go.

"Our tuck-away destination … kind of got forgotten," Pat said. "This gave us a chance to come alive."

The Ziarniks bought Whiskey Creek in 1993 and hadn't changed the decor much since it was Torpedo Shop Tavern. Before corporate restaurants came to Silverdale, Whiskey Creek was the only steakhouse around, Pat said. In the last few years, shrinking business, the declining economy and the failed Poulsbo branch of Whiskey Creek threatened to take everything from the Ziarniks. To keep Whiskey Creek open, they sold their cars and their house in White Horse, and cashed in retirement and life insurance.

"It's not about Pat and Karan," Pat said. "There's 20 people we're trying to keep employed."

The Ziarniks weren't allowed to see the inside of their restaurant during filming, but did help staff remove all the furniture and decorations. An interior designer came about a month before the shoot to scope out the place, and Pat said she asked him what he would do to spruce up the place if he had $10,000. Pat's idea was good enough to be used as the design — "Texas chic."

Whiskey Creek now has a cleaner Western look. Wagon wheels are suspended from the ceiling. Log bannisters have been cut up and remade as a wall display, framing the restaurant's name. Blue and green walls accent the black furniture. Gone are the hard-backed wooden chairs that so many customers complained about. The chair seats were recycled into a new top for the bar. The show also opened a boarded-up window on one wall to bring in more light.

The show's host, Chef Robert Irvine, revamped the menu, most noticeably cutting it from 44 menu items to 22 (now at 27). On the episode, he called the steaks "bland" and said there were too many fried items on the menu, but didn't seem to have any other critiques for the kitchen staff. Irvine added a few new items, such as halibut cheeks for the fish and chips, but Pat said that wasn't practical for Whiskey Creek — halibut cheeks are only available a few weeks out of the year, and at high prices.

Irvine's style was a bit rough on the restaurant's staff; server Jennifer Ludlow said Irvine's approach reminded her of her father's, who was in the military.

However, Pat said he and Karan were "congenial" to him and had "nothing but positives to share about the experience."

"Chef Robert brought first and foremost to my attention the things I was neglecting," Karan said. "… I was neglectful [on] things that could have helped the staff. They struggled more than they should [have]."

The transition has been a little rough. Whiskey Creek will no longer offer weekly jazz music — Pat said the $30,000 spent on musicians was too high — and the restaurant lost a lot of its regulars. Staff members say Whiskey Creek is going for a younger, family-friendly crowd.

Pat said a lot of folks came out after the show was filmed, but the restaurant was not immune to the typically slow holiday months, November and December. However, lunch and dinner guests have generally increased over past years, he said.

Staff members say they still feel a little shortchanged. One of Irvine's suggestions was a computer system for tracking inventory and orders. The show's $10,000 budget didn't include getting the restaurant a Point-of-Sale system (the touch screen computers for wait staff), but Pat did get a computer system for tracking inventory. Service staff said they have gotten complaints from customers about slow service, especially right after the restaurant reopened.

Nicole Smith, a busser and host at Whiskey Creek, said the restaurant was booked solid after the episode was shot, but the kitchen and serving staff barely had time to learn the new menu.

"The Food Network left us with our pants down," Smith said.

Smith also said the staff didn't appreciate Irvine suggesting employees were stealing upward of $100,000 a year. Both Smith and Pat said it’s to be expected that some drinks or meals will be comped (on the house), but the restaurant needs an accountability system.

"[The staff] like to have structure and that's what we were missing," Karan said.

At $20,000 per machine, Pat said he will invest in a new computer system when they are able to afford it.

One regular customer said she likes the new look.

"We would go back now because of the change, more than we would before," said Patti Kelley of Poulsbo. Kelley was one of the lucky few that were able to snag a seat at Whiskey Creek's opening night, with the cameras still rolling.

"It was really fun, the atmosphere exciting," she said. Kelley was a regular customer before, but said the "atmosphere had gotten very stagnant." She said she didn't not like the food before, but thought all the changes to the restaurant were very positive.

"It's exciting to have some kind of marketing for our little peninsula," Kelley said.

The shoot was a stressful experience for the staff, and Pat's not sure he would do a reality TV show again, he said. But the Ziarniks say they feel less stress now.

"We needed a kick in the butt … and [the show] gave us the opportunity," Pat said. "Not only does [the show] help restaurants in financial difficulty, it showcases local restaurants and people."

Check out www.foodnetwork.com/restaurant-impossible for an episode guide and when the show will air next.

Whiskey Creek Steakhouse is open Mondays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sundays, 4-8 p.m. Pat and Karan said they plan to host a screening of their episode in the restaurant soon. Visit www.whiskeycreeksteakhouse.com for more information.

 

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