Saw Tooth Roadhouse cuts through tough times to serve as a friendly gathering place

By Drew Myron

For more than 70 years, the restaurant has been home to a series of bars and cafes.

You’ll miss the turn.

On the first visit, you’ll miss the exit and turn too late into the sawmill next door. Don’t fret, just follow that long line of logs to a hidden gem.

Tucked along Highway 35 about 10 miles south of Hood River stands Saw Tooth Roadhouse. At this come-as-you are restaurant and bar, heaping pizzas, mounding nachos and fresh local brews may be the stars, but it’s the hardworking owners—Lori Keller and Doug Caveny— that make this place shine.

In 2008, at the start of an economic downturn, Lori and Doug took a risk and bought a restaurant.

“The economy was bad,” Doug says. “We opened up and had three-ticket days and debts to pay. But the people around here supported us and gave us their friendship. It was tough, but it seemed like we should keep going.”

A small town with a small labor pool creates challenges for any small business. Saw Tooth, with a team of 10 employees, is no exception.

“We have a great staff now,” Lori says. “We are so lucky. We couldn’t do what we do without them.”

When Doug Caveny and Lori Keller-pictured here beneath Big Foot-opened Saw Tooth Roadhouse, customers brought gifts of saw blades, saw art and Sasquatch “artifacts.”

Open six days a week, serving lunch and dinner, the couple share duties and juggle shifts to allow time to raise their 10-year-old daughter, Mei Li. During the day, Doug greets customers, tends bar and serves meals. Lori does the same in the evenings, along with administrative tasks for the business.

If the Saw Tooth seems like a second home, it’s because it is—the couple live next door. “If I’m awake, I am working,” Doug says.

Despite the challenges, Doug and Lori continue to look on the bright side.

“The job is really fun,” Doug says.

Last year, when the septic system gave out and made a mess of the backyard, the couple turned the demolition into an opportunity to create an outdoor patio, complete with seating, food trailer and a stage for musicians.

“The patio is very comfortable, and works well for special events and private parties,” Lori says.

In many ways, Saw Tooth Roadhouse is a comeback story. Lori was born and raised in Parkdale; Doug in Seattle. The couple met while attending Linfield College in McMinnville, where Lori studied psychology and Doug studied accounting.

After graduating in 1992, the couple moved to Anchorage, Alaska, where they worked in bars and restaurants and furthered their education at University of Anchorage, where Lori earned a degree in elementary education.

Though they enjoyed careers in education and computer technology, their hearts were in restaurant life. While in Alaska, Lori spent 13 years managing a large staff at a high-volume independent pizzeria.

“It was a lot of growth and challenge,” she says. “But it was quite rewarding.”

When the couple, who have been married 25 years, were ready to start a family, they wanted to be close to family. Lori and Doug returned to the Hood River Valley and bought the restaurant, aiming to offer “good food to good people.”

The restaurant has a long history. Initially built as a home, its first commercial enterprise was Mrs. Nix Fruit Stand in 1941. Throughout the years, the site has been Jim’s Place, Hazel’s Tavern, Jack’s Place and Drapers. It was Santa Croce, an Italian restaurant, until 2008.

In a nod to neighboring Mt. Hood Forest Products, Doug and Lori named their new restaurant Saw Tooth Roadhouse. Right away, customers tendered them gifts of sawblades, saw art and historic logging photos.

Now, years after leaving her hometown, Lori sees familiar faces in the restaurant daily: her softball coaches, her teachers, her friends’ parents.

Doug has found a home among friends in the Hood River Valley. “The people around here supported us and gave us their friendship,” he says.

“Lori knows everyone,” Doug says.

“I love when I walk in and hear people chatting, and things are humming and happy,” Lori says.

Customers are happy. Facebook, Yelp and other online reviews are chocked with five-star ratings praising Saw Tooth’s made-from-scratch meals, generous portions and relaxed feel.

“I like the Big Foot Pizza,” Jerry Wingerd, owner of JW Logging in Parkdale, says of the blackened chicken, pepperoni, bacon and barbecue sauce combo. “I’ve tried other places, but this is the best place.”

It’s not just the food creating a good vibe, says Doug, it’s the customers.

“I’ve lived in some different places, and the people here are so generous and interested,” he says. “People here are amazing, kind, so real and so supportive. I am humbled.”

Lori agrees.

“This is an Upper Valley community gathering place,” she says. “It feels good to provide that.”

For more information, call 541-354-2511, or go to sawtoothroadhouse.com or www.facebook.com/sawtoothroadhouse