From canned chili to austere design: how Laile Fairbairn redefined eating in Anchorage

The head of some of Anchorage’s most iconic restaurants isn’t the type of pin-striped businessperson many would expect.

Laile Fairbairn at the counter of Snow City Cafe, where her dream first came to life (Credit: Oscar Avallaneda-Cruz via Laile Fairbairn/courtesy of Laile Fairbairn)

At the Hotel Captain Cook’s quintessential in-house coffee joint, The Cubby, I sat down with restaurateur Laile Fairbairn — owner of the organization that manages Snow City Cafe, South, Spenard Roadhouse, and Crush Bistro. She built Anchorage’s more urbane breakfast scene from the ground up over 25 years. Fairbairn has been through unimaginable changes in her career. And it all started, as anything does, with family.

First Steps

“I came from a big family, and all you did was eat together,” she said of her passion for food, “I mean, that just seemed like the center of everything was eating together or planning your next meal together. And so it was community I loved more than the food itself.”

After graduating from West Anchorage High School, Fairbairn pursued a major in journalism with a public relations emphasis at the University of Oregon. Afterward, she started a career in advertising in Seattle. While residing in the Northwest, she grew accustomed to the lively and hip breakfast scene of the West Coast. In five years’ time, however, the young professional began reflecting on the love she had for her hometown.

“I really loved Seattle, but I missed Anchorage, I missed the connection,” she said, “I liked running into people in the grocery store.”

Another important factor placing Fairbairn back in Anchorage was meeting her future husband — a California transplant up from Los Angeles — while she was in town visiting family. He ultimately prompted a permanent return. A new chapter of her life was ready to be written

A Long Road Ahead

While reestablishing herself in Anchorage, Fairbairn started accruing the very experience she would need for her later ventures.

“I had worked at Diane’s restaurant — which is a little cafe downtown — because my soon-to-be husband knew the owners, so I worked there for a couple of months,” she said in recollection of her first job after moving back.

After working for a year and a half at another local ad agency, she had her first taste of food-service managerial experience with the help of an old friend.

“I did work at Humpy’s, because my high school friend owned Humpy’s, and they hired me as their first manager.”

Fairbairn made note of just how formative Humpy’s was, saying: “That was the last job I had before I [opened] Snow City, and they were very supportive of me and knew that was my ultimate goal.”

Drafting a business plan in 1997 with the emphatic support from her peers, she pushed ahead with this ultimate goal. After a long battle over the location that would become Snow City Cafe, she finally had a foundation — albeit a rocky one — upon which to build. From a recently derelict pizza joint, a new adventure unfolded.

A City in the Kingdom

“I opened Snow City, February 10, 1998,” she said, “On February 9, my whole family came down and cleaned it. And then we reopened the next day and we made chili from a can because that’s what [the pizza parlor] had.”

Though her family provided love and support in droves, that grand opening quickly proved disappointing. With Harvey, the one cook she had on staff, her new restaurant made a total of $330 in sales before the day’s end.

“That first day I remember thinking: ‘Oh my God, how is this ever going to work?’” 

Her doubts were many at the outset. She persevered, however, seeing this challenge as a catalyst for growth.

“I think my naivete was fortunate, because I probably don’t know if I would have done it if I had known how hard it would be.”

In the Business of People

While on the job, her skill set grew with her staff and responsibilities. Though her journey was a fulfilling one, Snow City’s road ahead was not free of twists.

“I had worked in advertising where everybody showed up for work every day,” she said, “…I didn’t realize how hard it would be to live on your own, you know, I lived on my own, but I didn’t grow up that way, not struggling.”

Fairbairn gained empathy for her employees’ situations, even when difficulties with workers would affect Snow City’s day-to-day operations. While she tried to be friends with her staff, she realized the importance of enforcing policy and procedure. She had “winged it” early on in that regard, but she soon found that unsustainable.

A young couple eats at Snow City Cafe. Photo by Mark Zimmerman (2022, June)

She was now encouraging accountability, understanding that people weren’t “motivated by the same things.” This was difficult for the newly minted restaurateur, but she pulled through and remained honest with her team.

“It’s really hard, you know, to be a hard-ass when that isn’t your norm,” she said of this task, “and so you have to figure out how to walk that line.”

Fairbairn struck this balance of ensuring order while also maintaining a positive and fun work environment. She called this time “rewarding,” and Snow City’s accolades from Anchorage Press and Anchorage Daily News readers corroborate this. Life continued inexorably onward for this breakfast pioneer. Business and motherhood brought a new leg to her journey.

Victory in a New Decade

While advancing in the 2000s, Fairbairn came upon even more opportunities for growth. Buying Spenard Roadhouse in 2008, a location now more known for burgers than breakfast, was one such opportunity. Growing her brand, she needed help, though, and her role models were many.

“I’ve had wonderful inspiration, you know, Joanne Asher from [Sack’s Cafe] definitely inspired me from a design standpoint,” she said of the industrial design seen across her restaurants.

Asher and Fairbairn became co-owners after Fairbairn acquired the Roadhouse. Asher’s perseverance as a woman making it in the restaurant game in Anchorage continued to encourage her. Other business partners and friends aided Fairbairn as she pushed into the 2010s. Deb Seaton of Sidestreet Espresso, former mayor Ethan Berkowitz, and Rachel Udall of the Hotel Captain Cook all played a role in her success.

The employees that walked through her doors also helped her continue onward.

“I’ve had amazing and inspirational and smart [staff],” she said.

By 2015, Fairbairn was riding high on her success. That year, she opened South Bistro and Coffee House, which later dethroned Snow City’s breakfast dominance. Snow City made headlines for hosting President Barack Obama that September. She then became co-owner of Crush Bistro, adding yet another successful venture to her name.

South Bistro and Coffeehouse, one of Locally Grown Restaurants' most prominent success stories of the last decade Photo by Mark Zimmerman. (2022, October)

Five years passed, and her restaurants only grew further in popularity. Another unexpected foe, however, would emerge from the horizon at the end of the decade.

Pandemic, Trial, and Tribulation

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic completely upended the global service industry. As this challenge rapidly presented itself, leaders like Fairbairn were tossed by an ever-shifting storm.

“Federal assistance really helped [with the pandemic],” she said, “I don’t think many, many businesses would be around without that.”

With federal small-business relief, community staples like hers were able to stay afloat. This bought local businesses some time until COVID’s troublesome early chapters subsided. Even now however, stress persists.

“So the thing that we deal with now is rising food costs and supply chain issues,” she said of global logistical woes and record-high inflation, “I just got a message today that eggs are crazy expensive, and in short supply.”

This has affected many of her restaurants’ regular operations. Crab shortages made the summer challenging for Snow City. While things are uncertain now, Fairbairn has a knack for navigating uncertainty. In the face of ever shifting situations, it seems she only adapts and grows more.

Change and Communication

Underpinning much of Fairbairn’s restaurants’ success and resilience has been branding. Each eatery under the Locally Grown Restaurants umbrella bears a unique, but vaguely familiar identity across the board. From industrial design to comfort-food-laden menus, consistency is key.

“I do think that we took branding seriously from the get-go,” she said.

She wanted to invoke brand unity without producing carbon copies. She made this very clear early on in our talk, saying: “I loved what restaurants that I went to. There was a spirit. There was a soul to them. The ones that I liked, I didn’t like chains.”

Beneath all of this is care. Fairbairn sought to create restaurants where “you could tell somebody cared.” Between South, Spenard, Snow City, and Crush, an emphasis on merging the industrial with the rustic, the urban with the homey, was put forth.

New Media and a Digital Age

Having worked in advertising at the cusp of a new millennium, Fairbairn has experienced the life cycle of the modern internet. Social media pages that were once afterthoughts have become pivotal components of business success. She underscored the challenges of adapting to this changing online climate.

“Social media, it took a little bit to move beyond Facebook, and to recognize that we need to focus pretty much all our energy on social media.”

Expanding beyond her restaurants’ several carefully crafted websites has been a moving target. She said that “We could be doing much more.” Social media management for any large organization is expensive, and Fairbairn told me that the resources for a whole-hearted approach to it aren’t quite there yet.

“There are organizations that I am looking into, you know, who do social media really well, and I hope to emulate that.”

Fairbairn hopes to resurrect the newsletters her restaurants used to publish more frequently. At a time where growth is strained, communication has been put into sharp focus. This growth, however, will come, simply as a matter of time.

The State of Things and Looking to the Future

Fairbairn is reflecting on her life and career at a time when reflection is increasingly important. Her family has grown since she first moved back to Anchorage in the ‘90s. One of her now adult kids is off to college, and the other is taking a much-needed gap year. Like any parent faced with an empty nest, she turned to other outlets.

“I have a dog now, which is what I hear women of my age do when their children leave,” she joked.

She’s fortunate to have plenty of family nearby, and her love of traveling has stayed ever present. As was the case decades ago, she still loves communal dining, whether it be big family meals or eating out in town.

So What’s Next?

It has been seven years since South’s critically acclaimed debut. This gap of time is similar to that restaurant’s opening and the beginning of Fairbairn’s reign at Spenard Roadhouse in 2008. Naturally, she has another project in the works, but delays have kept it tamped down.

“I’m not sure if debt is gonna kill it because of the cost of construction and the cost of interest rates,” she said in a more concerned tone.

Nonetheless, Fairbairn still has long-term intentions to expand.

“I feel like I have another restaurant or two in me. I think there are some good concepts out there that we can do.”

Even in the midst of a shrinking labor pool, she’s confident that her restaurants will continue to attract staff. In a few years’ time, we may see more yet from this celebrated entrepreneur.

Bonus: Lightning Round!

I asked Fairbairn five “either/or” local-food-related questions. She explained her choices and noted some exceptions.

QUESTION 1: New Sagaya or Red Apple?

“I have not been to Red Apple, really. I know, and I’m going as soon as we finish this. I’m gonna write that down as one of my to-dos. I’ve heard so many good things about it. Julie O’Malley talks about it — but I live in West Anchorage and so I just haven’t been out there. So I’m definitely more of a [New Sagaya] and City Market person.”

QUESTION 2: Fire Island Bakeshop or Cake Studio?

“Oh, Fire Island. I mean, I love Janis and Rachel, and I love what they do, and it’s all quality. Cake Studio has been doing amazing things, [but] I just happen to know Janisand Rachel and I know Fire Island better.”

QUESTION 3: Snow City omelets or Snow City Benedicts?

“Fried egg sandwich.” — she decided to throw a curveball on this one

QUESTION 4: Salmon or Halibut?


QUESTION 5: Kaladi Brothers: Black Cup or the Brayton location?

“Black Cup.”

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