By Christina Whiting
How many people can say that they’ve lived inside a gigantic Twinkie and worked inside an even bigger potato? Denise Jantz can and she has pictures to prove it.
After receiving a degree in communications and journalism and then tramping around Europe for six months, Jantz was living in Chicago, but dreaming of life in Alaska.
“When I was a child, a family from Fairbanks moved in down the road from us,” she said. “I listened to stories of how dark the winters were and how light the summers were. I thought it must be a very magical place.”
In the spring of 1992, Jantz and a friend packed up her truck and headed north.
“When we crossed the Alaska border, I felt like I was home,” she said.
The pair picked three National Parks they wanted to visit – Denali, Wrangell St. Elias, and Gates of the Arctic. They headed to Denali because it was the easiest to get to. In Denali, they found jobs and Denise lived in a tent for the summer, preferring to be outdoors.
Between friendly locals, interesting tourists, magnificent landscape and close encounters with wildlife, Jantz fell in love with Alaska. At the end of the season, they returned to Chicago, but Alaska remained imprinted on Jantz’s heart. Just six months later, she turned her compass north once more.
Mesmerized by earlier stories of the semi-remote community of McCarthy, Jantz found work at the McCarthy Lodge and purchased a piece of property at the end of the season.
“I had no job, no place to live and only a small amount of tips for a down payment,” she said. “The sellers made it work for me and I am eternally grateful for their trust.”
Jantz traveled to Homer to visit a friend and stayed for the winter. She worked at Land’s End and lived in a cabin, collecting coal off the beach for heat.
Eager to start a seasonal business, Jantz and her college friend Kathleen Sustrich-Heinle bought a 1968 Chevy step van.
“It was an old UPS truck and was listed as junk on the title,” she said.
They hired a friend to renovate the van into a DEC-approved kitchen and artist Laurie Montgomery Olsen agreed to paint a mural on it in exchange for a few polar fleece sweatshirts. Roadside Potatohead, or The Potato, a mobile food van that specialized in fresh cut curly fries, debuted during the 1995 Shorebird Festival and was moved to McCarthy that summer.
“We had the first French fry in the Kennicott River Valley,” Jantz said.
Having a restaurant in a tiny town with a river and hand-pulled tram separating them didn’t stop Jantz and Heinle from being busy. People in town would call them on their CB radio and order food. The food was then put in insulated coolers and trammed across the river.
Jantz lived in a Streamline trailer that she dubbed The Cosmic Space Twinkie. The Potato sustained Jantz for the next nine years and for the next 11, Jantz spent her winters in Homer, working at Two Sisters Bakery, bartending at Alice’s, the American Legion and the Down East Saloon and running a house cleaning business. She spent her summers in McCarthy.
When Jantz purchased Heinle’s share of the business, she moved the van across the river and into town. She added a building for seating as well as an espresso machine, expanding the business to Roadside Potatohead and Spud’s Espresso.
Jantz had two cabins built on her McCarthy property and rented Swift Creek Cabins as nightly ‘upscale rustic’ rentals. She moved the Twinkie on to her property and lived overlooking a bluff on her eight acres.
In 2004, Jantz moved to Homer to live year-around and managed the Down East Saloon. She married in 2005 and she and her husband built and ran Coal Towne Creamery, now called Spit Licks, an ice cream parlor on the Homer Spit boardwalk.
During this time, Jantz realized that she had a problem with drinking and needed help.
“I was hiding an inner unhappiness and numbing my feelings without even realizing that’s what I was doing,” she said.
Jantz traveled out of state and was in Oregon on July 4, 2007, facing two options – she could go to a 4th of July rodeo or she could check in to a residential treatment center.
“I realized that if I didn’t check in to the treatment center, I’d likely die,” she said. “When I walked through the doors, I knew I was never going to pick up another drink.”
Jantz has been sober for over six years.
In 2009, she returned to Homer to live full time. She sold the Twinkie three years ago and the Potato in 2003. Friends of Jantz’s continue to own and operate The Potato in McCarthy and in 2015, the Potato turns 20.
Jantz works as the Administrative Assistant at Homer Council on the Arts and is the Development Coordinator for Kachemak Heritage Land Trust. She has a soft spot for animals that have special needs and are rescues. She lives just outside of town with her 10 ‘kids’ – two dogs, six birds and two bunnies.
“I love my life,” she said. “I am where I am today because of my past experiences, both good and bad. I work for two incredible organizations, in a place that I love, surrounded by amazing people, what more could I ask for?”
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