The young woman is dancing like nobody is watching, lip syncing animatedly to Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”
It is 2 p.m. on a Monday and Klondike Rib & Salmon is packed.
Is that a server or a customer?
“It could be either,” says Dona Novecosky, craning her head for a better look, a mischievous smile on her face. “It happens here all of the time.”
It was a server this time but, in more of a spiritual sense, it was Novecosky’s energy up there, busting moves: ♫ Oh, yeah … ♪
This is the atmosphere she has created at Klondike Rib & Salmon, on 2nd Avenue, conveniently located one block from where busload after busload of tourists are dropped off.
Tourists who have heard the word miles and miles ago: You want ribs like dad wishes he had made? You want to have fun? You won’t mind standing in line outside of this place.
Novecosky has owned the restaurant for 14 years now. Other than paperwork, she has no assigned task in the restaurant. She just goes where she is needed, infuses fun wherever she feels like it and just enjoys her “family”.
She will tell you over and over that it is her staff that brings the magic every day. But it starts with the job interview.
“They have to be kind and caring and funny and genuine,” she says. “I want people who want to be here, not just because they are getting paid.
“I mean, you aren’t just dropping off food at the table.”
She says her favourite job interview question is, “What is your superpower?”
After they get the job, she says she loves signing their paycheques because she knows that they took care of her, so she is now taking care of them as they pay for school or a mortgage or holiday.
“But people have fun here.”
Like, for instance, the time Novecosky accepted a challenge to leg wrestle a 300-pound hunter.
“I won,” she says, adding she had lots of practice leg wrestling with her brothers for desserts when she was growing up.
Novescosky is from Saskatchewan and she wants everyone to know. You see, she doesn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve, she flys it at full-mast outside her restaurant with her Saskatchewan flag.
Along with a Croatian flag of her ancestors, and a Canadian flag, and the Yukon flag, and a Canadian Rangers flag.
“I’m a Ranger,” she says, brightening up even more. “For eight years now. I love being a Ranger.
“The Minister of Defence at the time, Peter MacKay, asked if he could hug me because I fly the Ranger flag and I’m a Ranger. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
She may be from Saskatchewan, but she is all Yukoner now.
“Funny story,” says Novecosky. “I had been living in Europe for two years and was planning to move… Then I called a cousin in the Yukon and she answered. I asked if I could sleep on her couch for a week and she said yes.
“I left two days later and that was 25 years ago: October 24, 1991. It is because my cousin answered her phone.”
Novecosky looks around the deck of her restaurant, the sun warming her left cheek, the happy conversations of her guests warming her right. She is not counting net profit dollars, she is counting smiles. And then she continues her story:
“The moment I drove down the South Access I felt, ‘I am home’.
“It was immediate. It had to be the energy, but it involves the people, the land… but the people for sure.
“It felt like fun; it felt like the frontier; there is something here that feels like home.
“I wasn’t born here, but I will die here – hopefully not too soon.
“The day I moved here, I said I was going to open a hostel – because there wasn’t one here and, when I was travelling, that was where I stayed – and, nine years later, I opened a hostel.”
That, of course, would be the multiple Golden Host Award-winning Beez Kneez Bakpakers on Hoge Street.
“I wanted one that was cute and welcoming and took care of people.
“It would be a stepping stone to the Yukon.
“The moment I walked through the door, I felt hugged.”
Novecosky has met many, many friends through the hostel, from all over the world. She and her staff and her clients fly back and forth to attend each others weddings.
Now, running a hostel is an 18-hour-a-day commitment. Why then, would she buy a restaurant two years later?
“No, no,” she says. “It is 24 hours a day – it is 24/7. It is my Mother Teresa House, it takes care of people.”
When do you kick back and watch something smarmy on television while eating something bad?
“I don’t have a TV,” she deadpans. “I prefer live entertainment.
“I don’t know what reality TV is unless it comes into this spot. I don’t want to watch someone else’s life happen, I want to live my own.”
But where do you get your energy?
“From the sun.”
The interview is over and it is time for Novecosky to melt once again into the happy chaos of a well-oiled operation. But, first, she insists on packing me off with a dessert.
It is a brownie, I discover. And it is a metaphor for all that Novecosky’s life has become in the Yukon: it is a generous portion with layers of flavour and layers of textures. And nuts. On the side is a caramel sauce that isn’t too sweet, it is a genuine taste.
And, written on the top of the box, a personal touch: “Packaged with Love, dona Sun.”