Jewel Lake Tastee Freez, a community staple, to see new ownership

After nearly 30 years of tasty treats and community contributions, Rich Owens is stepping down, and into retirement
Rich Owens, who's owned the Jewel Lake Tastee Freez since 1994, is stepping down from his role as Chief Ice Cream Tester and owner of the community staple.
Published: Sep. 12, 2022 at 10:49 PM AKDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Twenty eight years ago, Rich Owens was entrusted with running the ever-popular, nostalgia-inducing Jewel Lake Tastee Freez, a place that — at the time — had been under the same owners for more than three decades.

“I show up in Alaska in 1986,” Owens said. “And in ‘94, I bought the Tastee Freez up here.”

Owens has now owned the franchise location for nearly as long as his predecessors. His neighbors ran a Tastee Freez in his hometown in Montana, he said, and he worked for them in high school and into college, which helped kick off his love of the national franchise.

Couple that introduction with the example his parents set as longtime business owners themselves, and it seems fitting that Owens would end up at the helm of the Jewel Lake Tastee Freez for nearly 30 years.

“It was pretty neat to be able to have a relationship with the franchise in my teens, and in my twenties, and then I come up here, and I’m buying it,” Owens said. “Where I grew up in Montana, my family, we owned a small business. My father was a pharmacist, owned a drug store, and my parents were always involved in the community. That’s where I got my orientation to philanthropy and community service.”

Despite the popularity of its vast menu, the Jewel Lake Tastee Freez has proven to be much more than a fan-favorite fast-food joint. Ever since taking over the business in the mid-1990s, Owens has made a point of following in his parent’s footsteps, working to support community programming not only in Anchorage but across Alaska.

“We learned it by just observing,” he said of his community service, including that which his business had allowed over the years, and the inspiration his parents provided as he was growing up. “That was never a discussion. We just, that’s how it happened.”

Catholic Social Services, the Salvation Army, Operation Santa Claus, the Alaska National Guard, the American Cancer Society, and the Anchorage School District School Business Partnership Program are a few of the beneficiaries of his work.

“We serve a lot of different purposes,” Owens said.

In Anchorage, the Cluff family ran the Jewel Lake Tastee Freez for 32 years, according to Owens. The shop first opened in 1958 — at a different location — as one of the first national franchises to arrive in the Last Frontier.

Now, though, after 28 years of serving tasty treats to Alaskans and supporting various community service endeavors helping people of all ages, Owens has a new venture he is taking on: retirement.

“I just want to make sure I thank, you know, all the good employees I’ve had,” Owens said through tears. “That’s the hardest part about leaving.

“It’ll be an adjustment,” he laughed, though still wrought with emotion. “It’s a change. But it’s okay.”

What better way to thank an employee than by trusting them with your lifelong business? Owens said that is the plan, as a couple he knows well works on taking over the community staple in the Sand Lake neighborhood.

“I turn 70 next May,” Owens said. “And I thought, ‘This is a good time.’ I’ll never slow down completely, I’ll always be working on a project, but it seemed like it was the logical time to do it.

“I have kids I’ve almost adopted that are still here, and others have left and have come back,” he continued. “And it’s nice to have them come back to town, and visit, and they stop by to check and see how things are going.”

Despite the relationships he’s built with so many people over the years, and his enjoyment of seeing how the kids he employed grew up, Owens is grappling with stepping back and into a new role. Passing the torch to one of his own has helped make the transition a little bit easier, he said, though his departure is no doubt bittersweet for him and many others.

Owens saw hundreds of young employees come through the doors of the Jewel Lake Tastee Freez, but one in particular — Linwood Stowe, who worked at the shop when he was a teenager — stood out.

“Linwood and Darlene, who are buying the business — when I bought the restaurant, (Linwood) was here for five or six years,” Owens said. “He was back in 2011 when I was short-staffed, and he’s been waiting almost three decades for me to retire.”

Now, as he takes over and Owens moves into a new chapter of his life, the hope is that much of the Jewel Lake Tastee Freez stays the same as it’s always been.

“I think Linwood wants to operate it exactly the same we have for all these years, as far as the schools and the non-profits and military,” Owens said. “Since he was willing to do that, his desire, I think, to continue on — this is the oldest Tastee Freez in the country, the largest Tastee Freez in the country, thanks to the support from the community — and we want to stay in that position.”

Owens said the sale to Stowe is about as close to selling to family as you can get.

So how will Owens be spending his time after Stowe and his family take over? He said he’ll be doing “all those things you wouldn’t be able to do when you own a business that has 25 teenagers working for you.”

He’s planning on staying in Alaska, he said, but will take more side trips to see friends and family, and to enjoy his boat and RV.

First, though, he must fully transition from Chief Ice Cream Tester and owner to former owner, something for which he has allotted about a year.

“Next May, we’ll be 65,” Owens said of his Tastee Freez. “And we just appreciate everything the community has done all these years.

“We’ll just take it day by day,” he added. “And as (Linwood) feels comfortable running the show on his own, then we’ll step back, a little bit more, a little bit more. It really hasn’t started to sink in yet, and it probably won’t for a little while.”

Photojournalist Mike Nederbrock contributed to this report.