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  • Writer's pictureMark C. Anderson

After a Wild Year One, Orcas Hotel Makes Splash in Edible Monterey Bay Magazine

It's only appropriate that a property with a history as rich as Orcas Hotel's would have such an eventful inaugural year after its rebirth with new owners. For every 100-year storm and catastrophic fire the hotel survived across a century plus in existence, 2020 and the start of 2021 had, say, a pandemic and a record snow to match.

Chef/co-owner John Cox celebrated the one-year point with a recap and a round of shoutouts on his Instagram feed, which is up to 26,000 followers.

Some of the more insane numbers: 200 different nightly specials—yes, 200—12 different box subscriptions and 60 customized and private chef dinners. Those numbers are made more mad by the context.

"Between all that cooking our team has renovated three dining areas a hotel room, pick axed a trail and built an outdoor covered dining area," Cox writes, modest enough not to mention retiling the dish pit, painting staircases, overhauling an annex and enforcing shifting COVID protocols. "It’s been the most challenging year I have ever experienced, but also one of the most inspiring."

The recipe for not-just-surviving-but-thriving, per his post: the support of the Orcas community and the tireless efforts of an incredible team.

"While we aren’t out of the pandemic yet, we can at least see light on the horizon," he continues. "As the days get longer and trees blossom it reminds us that we also need to continue to evolve and embrace the warmer months ahead."

That testimony came on the heels of a feature I wrote for Edible Monterey Bay magazine, where Cox is a longtime writer and I'm contributing editor, called "North Star: Chef John Cox follows his heart to a haunted hotel on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest."

For the purposes of this blog I'll share three quick passages from the narrative:

 They’re cultivating the type of place that feels like it could only exist right there on Orcas. And while it’s very much a specific experience, the way Cox and company are going about things could influence mom-and- pop lodging around the world.

• Octavia [Van Moorhem]’s family finished building the hotel in 1904, so creaks and quirks are to be expected. The welcome letter that greets guests acknowledges all that up front—Octavia’s occasional games, old stairs, thin walls and ferry landing traffic—and comes with earplugs. For Cox and Felder, those elements are reasons they wanted the place. As the letter goes on to say, “We love it, but it’s not for everyone.”

• Yes, the hotel does have rooms offering homey accommodation to complement sweeping views of the Salish Sea and surrounding islands, but this is a food operation first and foremost, as salivating Instagram followers can testify. The go-tos—New Mexico-style breakfast burritos, big burgers and beer-battered fish ’n’ chips among them—sell with the consistency of the tides. But the kitchen team comes to play with specials.

“For a long time Orcas Cafe was all about tourism, extracting dollars from people waiting for ferries—coffees and croissants,” Cox says. “We figured tourists are always gonna be here, and if they like it, great, if not, fine. Even pre-pandemic, we wanted to be a locals’ restaurant. So we flipped this hotel on its head and started pushing hard on specials.”

That’s meant Taco Tuesdays and Sushi Saturdays, plant-based boxes and “survival kits” delivered to doorsteps. It’s meant installments of a series called “Grandma’s Kitchen” and savory barbecue pulled from the custom one-ton reverse-flow T-Pit smoker shipped from Ennis, Texas.

Yes, the past year has been many things, including tragic. Here's hoping that from past and ongoing adversity emerges more inspiration, while a connected community, special region and a tight team at Orcas Hotel all continue to grow stronger.

One final thing about Orcas Hotel rebirth: That same day owners Julia Felder and John Cox took over management of the hotel, Valentine's Day, 2020, no more than three or four weeks before COVID protocols would spin an already chaotic year-to-be into greater turbulence, Felder and Cox found out she was pregnant with Stanley Norfleet Cox. His birth in early September only made 2020 that much more unforgettable.

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