Larry Bowman, general manager of the Oak Tree Restaurant, left, talks with cook Brian Hansen about kitchen layout. The Oak Tree is preparing for a "soft open" on May 20.
Larry Bowman, general manager of Woodland's Oak Tree Restaurant, stands in what he hopes will be a billiard room at the renovated restaurant and cardroom.
WOODLAND — The new owners of the Oak Tree Restaurant are anteing up in an attempt to revive the once-thriving Woodland institution.
Contractors are putting the finishing touches on the spacious building, installing new fixtures, applying fresh coats of paint and affixing carpets. All told, the Oak Tree's new owners are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to renovate the restaurant, which fell on hard times last year following its transformation into Woodland's first cardroom. Shuttered since December, when mounting debts forced the casino and restaurant to close, the Oak Tree has sat empty, a reminder for some Woodland residents of unrealized promises.
"When it was a cardroom, it was never busy," said Gary Williams, a real estate agent who lives in Woodland. "It's like they sacrificed their dining clientele for their gambling clientele."
A lifelong Clark County resident who's lived in Woodland since 1995, Williams said he remembered the restaurant's halcyon days. When he was a kid, his family made regular trips from Washougal for Sunday brunch.
When the Oak Tree's cardroom opened last year, the focus shifted toward gambling, Williams said.
On one hand, finding a way to fill the restaurant's ample space made sense. After all, Williams said, it's "too big to just be a restaurant or lounge." On the other hand, regulars soon saw a decline in service and quality.
But the Oak Tree's new owners -- a Portland-based group headed by chiropractor Dan Yan -- are going all in with a new slate of assurances.
They plan a "soft open" of the restaurant May 20. And the emphasis will be on quality food and drink.
"Our main drive is, we want to get into a business we're confident with," said Yan, who's invested in Portland-area restaurants before. "But we want to go into a new territory."
In part, that new territory is the Oak Tree's cardroom, which opened in early 2012 with a near-guarantee, made by its then owners, of accruing significant tax revenue for Woodland. Then it failed to attract anything resembling booming business.
A planned expansion of the casino never materialized. In December 2012, shortly before the Oak Tree bolted its doors, it received a tax lien from the Washington State Department of Revenue. Over the course of its one year of existence, the casino accounted for $63,342 in tax revenue for Woodland -- less than a third of what the city expected.
But the Oak Tree's cardroom -- housed in a back room that was added to the already-capacious restaurant under the previous ownership -- will reopen in early summer. Yan, who has no previous experience running a casino, will oversee the gaming operations.
He said he's confident his experienced team of investors won't have a problem running the restaurant and cardroom.
The Washington State Gambling Commission has already given the casino preliminary approval to reopen during the summer, said Wally Fitzwater, a consultant working with the Oak Tree's ownership group.
The group plans to hire between 80 and 100 people to work at the Oak Tree, close to the number of employees who were laid off in December. Some of the previous employees could find new employment at the Oak Tree, although many of them have already found work elsewhere.
"We've had some of the old employees apply, but, frankly, I don't know how many of them will be hired," Fitzwater said. "Certainly, we are open to interviewing the people who worked there before."
The restaurant's new managers say they want to return the Oak Tree to its roots. Food will come first, they say.
Larry Bowman, the Oak Tree's general manager, said every item on the menu will be made fresh. Although certain long-standing favorites will stick around -- meatloaf and cinnamon rolls, for example -- the menu may also strike some patrons as a departure.
"The stuff we took off was the stuff that didn't sell,"Bowman said.
The only frozen items will be the French fries, he said. The bar will serve fine wines and spirits.
Bowman acknowledged that he "couldn't care less" about the cardroom. The restaurant and bar, polished from the ground up to be given a rustic-but-modern look, will drive success, he said.
Bowman acknowledged the previous iteration of the Oak Tree had its failings. Years of cigarette smoke, when that was allowed inside, and cooking grease gave the place a thin veneer of grime.
In a word, Bowman said, "it was gross."
At least it was, until hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to revamp it.
For his part, Yan said he's using his money wisely, whether it's on the restaurant or the cardroom.
He may be taking a gamble, he recognizes, so he's putting out the effort to give himself even odds -- and leaving the rest up to chance.
"This is a good location for us," Yan said, referencing its proximity to I-5. "It's right on Exit 21 -- that's a lucky number. So we call it our 'Lucky 21.'"