When I learned the National Hotel in Jackson was for sale, I contacted broker Rick Lahkar of Sperry Commercial about it. During our online conversations, Lahkar told me that he is also the owner of Pioneer Inn and Suites in Pioneer, which is currently being renovated. I talked with Lahkar about his background and his plans for the Pioneer Inn and Suites and their adjacent buildings.
Lahkar’s adventure in hospitality started in 2002. He was in advertising and public relations in New York City when he decided to move to Sacramento to stay with friends. He intended to stay for only a short time because his true destination was San Francisco. But then Lahkar decided to get a job as a front desk clerk at a Holiday Inn Express in Sacramento. He was a natural at hospitality, so he stayed in Sacramento and became the general manager of the hotel a year later.
Expanding His Horizons
After a few years, Lahkar realized that he didn’t want to be in hospitality all his life and so he worked to get his real estate license in 2005. That same year, he left Holiday Inn to join the Fairfield Inn and Suites (a Marriott brand) in Natomas. He left on such good terms with the owner that he keeps in touch with that owner to this day.
Lahkar left because he wanted to be the night auditor—the front desk clerk who worked the graveyard shift from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. “During the day I wanted to focus on building my real estate business,” he explained, “and the responsibilities as a night auditor is much less than as the general manager of a Holiday Inn Express.”
He worked at the Fairfield Inn and Suites for a couple of years before he quit to run his real estate brokerage full time. Today he works as a broker for Sperry Commercial Global Associates from his office in Pleasanton. So, you may wonder, how did Lahkar end up owning a hotel in Pioneer?
Love at First Sight
“In the winter of 2014, my wife and I were taking a road trip up Highway 88 to Tahoe,” he said. “As we were driving on Highway 88, which is one of my most favorite scenic highways in California, we saw this beautiful property behind a chain-link fence that had a for sale sign on it. We pulled over and I took the sign information down and after our trip, I called the broker.”
The broker told Lahkar that the Pioneer Resort Lodge was a foreclosed property that was taken back by a private lender. Lahkar balked at the lender’s asking price and passed on the opportunity until a year later when he and his wife made the same trip up Highway 88 to Lake Tahoe. When they drove by the property, he wasn’t surprised to find the chain-link fence and the for sale sign were still up.
Lahkar and his wife were still interested, so he contacted the broker again. At that point, the broker was more amenable to negotiation and Lahkar put in an offer in March 2016. In June 2016, he purchased the property from the private lender, which included the hotel, a restaurant building, and a retail center next door. “It was exciting yet scary because small mom-and-pop businesses are ideally meant to be run by the owner, and the owner lives on-site,” he said. “That wasn’t my business plan.”
He started by putting together a team to run the hotel business but decided to keep the large restaurant space closed because it was too big of an effort to work on the hotel and restaurant at the same time, so it was logical for him to focus on the hotel. Lahkar also changed the name to Pioneer Inn and Suites.
His first full year as owner of Pioneer Inn and Suites was decidedly mixed. “Unfortunately, we got flooded twice in 2017,” he said. “That was disastrous for me, but somehow my love for that property kept me going.” But, he added, he still had a decent year because many PG&E contractors clearing trees stayed at the hotel for long stretches of time.
2018 was a better year, but 2019 brought another flood. “I guess anybody else would have packed his or her bags and walked away, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet,” Lahkar said. And then 2020 came and the pandemic arrived.
“Last year, when COVID hit, we shut down the hotel because that was the right thing to do,” Lahkar explained. “We never reopened our doors because I made an executive decision to provide housing for people who needed housing for whatever reason. For most of 2020, we rented out a few rooms long term for me to pay my bills and help a lot of less fortunate people.”
At the same time, Lahkar was working hard to secure financing to pay off a property note and improve the property. “With a lot of hard work, I was finally approved for an SBA loan to revive the hotel,” he said. “Nine lenders turned me down, but a bank in Santa Cruz saw that I had a lot of passion, I had a vision, and I had a story to tell.”
After Lahkar received the bank loan, he vacated the property, shut it down, laid off his staff, and then started creating a game plan to renovate the hotel. “We wanted to do a complete renovation, make it more modern, and do some work at the retail center,” he explained. “I decided to keep things local, and I have the services of Randy Babcock, a contractor based in Pioneer, and we look forward to doing a great revival job.”
Not One, But Three
There was also the question of what to do with Gallagher’s Pub that takes up one-half of the retail center. A couple of years ago, Gallagher’s was sold to a mother and son team from West Point, but the pandemic hit soon after they bought the pub, and Gallagher’s struggled through 2020 with limited service. What’s more, as part of the renovation, Lahkar said that he had to get construction insurance for the remodeling work and one requirement to get the insurance was to have no tenants in the buildings.
Lahkar came up with a win-win solution: He bought out the owners of Gallagher’s at the price the owners bought it for. “That is the right thing to do, even though I’m the landlord,” he said. “They’re happy because they have plans to move on with their lives, and I’m happy because we have a very specific plan for the 2,400 square foot retail center.”
The retail center is one of three renovation projects for the property. Lahkar will work on the hotel space first to modernize it. Next, he plans to change the restaurant space into an events center and commercial kitchen. “I love Pioneer, Pine Grove, and the upcountry area, but I’m a little concerned about reopening that huge restaurant space as a restaurant because of the economies of scale,” he noted.
Lahkar believes the space is a great spot for an events center with a 25-room hotel including a swimming pool next door, as well as a two-acre outdoor lot behind the restaurant space that will be developed for outdoor events. The commercial kitchen can be used for renters who want to bring in their own chef to prepare food on-site or to have caterers come in and use the facilities including a commercial refrigerator and freezer.
But he doesn’t just want to use the commercial kitchen as an events center. “At some point, I want to do meals for upcountry folks not as a profit center,” Lahkar said. “We businessmen also have a social responsibility, so my big goal is to get the kitchen available with my resources and my staff cooking wholesome meals that will be made available for people who need it.”
One at a Time
Lahkar went on to explain that his SBA loan doesn’t have enough money to upgrade all three parts of the property at once. So, he has divided the improvement work into two phases, with the first phase to rehab and reopen both the hotel and Gallagher’s Pub in the summer of 2022.
He said that when Gallagher’s Pub reopens, expect the restaurant to offer more to customers. “Gallaghers will have a better format with some more food and beverage offerings,” he said, “but not hardcore cooking—we’ll have food that the local population, highway travelers, and hotel guests will like.”
As for the events center, Lahkar said his personal goal is to establish the events center and commercial kitchen with his own money. “It’s a lot of work,” he laughed, “but I’m 150 percent dedicated to the cause, and come what may, I will make it happen.”
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