Whale’s Tale at the Orca Adventure Lodge opened early this year, two years after its grand opening as one of Cordova’s two sit-down coffee shops, then closed early for the season in September, but they’ll be back again on May 1, 2022.
You can count on that, says Wendy Ranney, the proprietor and the woman behind an array of coffee drinks, scones and homemade soups that have made the Whale’s Tale a popular local bistro that caters to families with young children.
The shop was forced to close early this year for lack of enough staff, after school opened and some employees could only work weekends.
“It was definitely a frustration,” she said.
Whale’s Tale first opened its doors in the pre-pandemic spring of 2019 and quickly became a hit for its food, play loft for young children and general ambience, but when the global novel coronavirus hit Alaska in 2020, Ranney said she couldn’t figure out a safe way to operate and it just seemed responsible to close down early in the season, so her employees had time to get other jobs.
In 2021, the shop was back, the pandemic notwithstanding, ready to serve up a variety of drinks, including the Wood Sprite, a syrup of spruce chips, lavender syrup, peppermint and lime juice, mixed with club soda. “The locals loved it, so it was fun to make,” she said.
Other popular drinks included Cullieann’s Birthday, a white chocolate mocha with red velvet cake syrup, served very large round cups, with whipped cream and sprinkles, and Heli Skier, a white chocolate mocha with chili powder and the option of spicing it up further with cayenne.
Ranney also focused on soup and bread options.
Every day she would make one big pot of soup, and when it ran out, it was gone. The soup of the day was advertised every morning and most days it was sold out by 1 p.m., she said. The most popular offering was her Italian Wedding soup, to which she would add gnocchi (an Italian potato pasta) along with meatballs and spinach.
“We had a schedule that was posted, and we tried to keep to that schedule, including cream soups on opposite weeks,” she said. “We did a clam chowder one week and the opposite Friday was a smoked salmon chowder soup.
“The soup was a big draw,” she said “People would take it to-go. At the end of the season, the soup to go came in a pint canning jar, because I ran out of to-go containers.”
There’s a lot of cream in her soups, Ranney acknowledged.
“If you are on a diet, you don’t want to eat here,” she said.
“We’re also known for our scones. If we had time, we did a sweet scone and a savory scone. The most popular one was a lavender and vanilla scone with an elderflower glaze.”
Her passion for creating special drinks, soups and pastries aside, Ranney said what she enjoys most is the interaction with people. “I enjoy making people happy,” she said. “When they see what I try to do, they get it. I wanted this to be a place that people would remember and look forward to each year.”
To keep everyone safe during the pandemic, Ranney and her staff tested regularly throughout the season, and when one employee did test positive, the shop closed for a week, so everyone could get retested and the shop deep cleaned.
“We wore masks all the time,” she said. Customers were also required to mask up unless they were sitting down. “At first we just asked unvaccinated folks to wear masks, but after 70 people got COVID in Cordova, we required masks,” she said. “We had to say ‘this is not just for me. It is for the safety of other customers and staff as well’.”
Ranney said she is so grateful to the community for their support in 2021.
“It is only a success because the community enjoyed it,” she said.
With the shop closed, she will be busy preparing for next year, doing online research and if she travels, seeking out other coffee shops to seek what makes them a success.
“I am particular about not poaching ideas,” she said. “If I like something, I put a personal twist to it.”
She also does online barista training and is weighing the possibility of getting her own coffee roaster in the future to create an Orca brand of coffee beans, but that will require further research. The current coffee shop required five years of research and renovation to make it happen, to come up with an atmosphere that would be best for Cordova, she said.
Her clients are pretty special to her too.
“One client came in for coffee and was people watching,” she said. “He wrote a poem about the coffee shop. Then he went home and burned it into a piece of wood,” and presented it to Ranney at the shop.
The poem plaque by Mike McElhiney is now on display at the shop.
At that moment when he presented it to her, “I could have shut down and been happy,” she said. ”I don’t think he realizes what that did for me.”