The first clue that Michael Hicks is a workaholic lies in the 40 cords of firewood he produces each year. He doesn’t use an hydraulic splitter or a team of strongmen. No, he swings a manual wedge-axe (known as a maul) to hand-split the whole 5,100 cubic feet himself.
“A few hours at a time makes it possible,” Hicks explained to an incredulous visitor.
The wood fuels two massive stone fireplaces and one wood stove in the unforgettable Strawberry Lodge east of Kyburz and 20 west of the ski slopes of the Sierra on Highway 50.
After all, warming the 8,000 square feet of ground floor is important when the outside temperature dips to zero, and bone-chilled snow enthusiasts are thawing with tall tales and taller toddies.
If Hicks is a dead ringer for Paul Bunyan, the Strawberry Lodge can just as easily be confused with a slightly faded movie set. It sits just off the highway in the shadow of Lovers Leap, somehow bathed in sunlight even on a late winter afternoon.
Its cavernous basement contains the owner’s personal apartment, a few tool rooms “and a ton of storage.”
The ground floor includes the restaurant, bar, ballroom and lobby, where a 1957 Alaskan Grizzly Bear watches the front door.
The second and third floors carry 43 rooms and a conference center. Altogether the building boasts 27 thousand square feet.
“We’re one of the only lodges left around here,” Hicks said without a hint of sadness. “There wasn’t much snow the last couple of years and the others couldn’t hold on, I guess.”
He gestured toward the nearly full parking lot.
“When the snow comes, we stay busy. Very busy. When they close the highway for a while, people turn around and make a bee-line for us. We also do a brisk business in selling and installing chains,” Hicks said.
The Strawberry Lodge is a natural venue for events, hosting a dozen weddings and receptions annually.
“We’re looking to seriously increase that business,” said new General Manager Stacy Naused, former operations manager for the El Dorado County Food Bank. “This is a perfect setting for business retreats, too — the conference room seats 300 people. Nothing compares to this value of location, facilities and ambiance.”
Assistant manager and barkeep Kerry Berg agrees.
“A stunning ballroom, large dining room, high capacity kitchen and a real turn-of-the-century tavern.” She points to the well-stocked hostelry with its oak bar and low amber lights.
“Lots of rustic charm. And we get great bands here,” Berg said.
The 5 3/4-acre campus is relatively flat and groomed as much as nature permits. In a pristine backyard, a graceful arch sits covered in snow.
“We had a wedding in November just after a blizzard. The bride really wanted the ceremony held right there,” pointed Hicks. “So we literally broomed away the snow from the entire lot and produced a beautiful event.”
It wasn’t clear if the happy bride wore long johns.
Carrying a full-time job as an automobile parts manager for a network of car dealerships, the 60-year-old Hicks somehow runs his crown jewel of hospitality management with an eye for detail. He insists that the guest experience be everyone’s top priority and invests his time accordingly.
“I got seven hours sleep recently, that’s probably a record.” He shrugged. “Sometimes it’s half that.”
Hicks bought the place 10 years ago for a reported sale price of over $2 million. The first two years produced some red ink but the lodge has steadily proved itself a smart investment.
“We had our best year in history last year, and so far this year is even better than last,” he said.
He lost his six-year business partner a few years ago, and currently operates with a staff numbering about 15. Beside management, this includes a chef and kitchen staff, an event coordinator (and restaurant server) Mary Aloi, and a maintenance man.
Aloi, a retired teacher from the Bay Area, loves the gig.
“My husband and I always took a class of kids to Europe every year to visit the Swiss Alps. This,” she waved her arm, “is as close to the alpine experience as we can get and still be in civilization.”
Ired Berry founded Strawberry Lodge in 1858 to serve the teamsters crews and miners with food, lodging and whatever else they needed. The highway was a toll road then, and toll collectors like Berry made the real money.
Legend says he also sold hay (which turned out to be straw) for their animals, and thus the name.
The lodge burned down twice in the following decade and was rebuilt in its present configuration by Fred Baunhoff, the owner from 1938 to 1941.
Other proprietors came and went, until Michael Hicks appeared in 2003.
“I’d always wanted a snowline lodge of 10 rooms or so, like a mountain bed and breakfast. This project was intriguing, though a bit out of scale for me. But I ran the numbers and realized it could be successful,” Hicks said.
It helped that Hicks had a background of logistics and property management, the latter stemming from his personal real estate investments.
The team is preparing Strawberry Lodge for its 10th anniversary blow-out under Hick’s ownership. The event is planned for Friday, Feb. 15 and Saturday, Feb. 16, one day off Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14). Mike Blanchard and the Californios are playing on Saturday, Feb. 16.
A special menu features a sumptuous choice of appetizers, entrées and desserts. Reservations are being accepted at this time at 530-659-7200.