Since the Totem Market and Gifts started serving food three decades ago it never made much of a splash as a local eatery. Previously, its deli sandwiches, bottled water, and six packs were a convenience for park visitors but the store’s dark interior was uninviting. In the past, the Totem’s claim to fame was that it is the last stop for snacks, drinks, and ice before entering Sequoia National Park.
That was then, this is now— In 2013, Greg Lockhart, owner of Sequoia Pacific Realty in Three Rivers, purchased the Totem from Rinod Ryani who had owned the property for six years. In the Totem, Lockhart saw an undervalued investment.
Determined to make upgrades, the new owner began to gradually transform the property to a welcoming roadside market with a restaurant serving competitively priced homestyle California cuisine.
“Thinking back to how much Pam [Greg’s wife] and I enjoyed the Bullene winery’s tasting room, I wanted the Totem to have wine tasting too,” Greg said.
The comfortable wine-tasting room was added to the front of store and opened in 2015. The wait staff serves a fine selection of Central Coast and Sonoma Valley varietals and on occasion the small bar is elbow to elbow with the vino crowd.
Until the extra snow and tire chain rental frenzy of this past El Nino winter, there were lots of days with so little in receipts Greg wondered if all the upgrades were worth it.
But the Lockharts have remained committed to making the Totem work. They’ve kept the cuisine simple, emphasizing what they like and what works, including freshly made sandwiches, side salads, and scrumptious baked goods, such as cornmeal muffins, mini pies, and cookies.
The Totem’s signature menu items are barbecue tri-tip and chicken served as an entrée, in sandwiches, or as a topper to a Santa Fe Salad.
Two years ago when We Three Bakery and Restaurant closed its doors, the Totem began to serve breakfast. Now the Totem seeks to fill yet another niche in the local restaurant scene: dinner.
What’s for dinner?
Tonight — Friday, Aug. 26 — the Totem begins a new chapter. Dinner is now being served Fridays through Sundays. It’s doubtful it would ever have happened so soon had not Lori Isley of Three Rivers been willing and available.
“I met Lori while she was at Antoinette’s but I had no idea that one day she would be doing Totem’s dinner,” Greg said.
It was serendipity, and chef Lori couldn’t be more excited to embark on a new episode in her food service career, a colorful culinary career that began 25 years ago after she graduated from the culinary school at Seattle Community College.
“I cooked Italian in the Pike Place Market right out of culinary school,” Lori said. “I’ve carried that experience with me to all the places I’ve worked.”
For 10 years, Lori also worked a catering business that she started.
Lori’s catering clients included Detlef Shrempf of the Seattle Sonics and Alex Rodriguez when he played for the Seattle Mariners. She also worked as a sous chef at Overlake Golf and Country Club for three-and-a-half years where member Bill Gates dined regularly.
Since moving to Three Rivers in 2009, Lori has held a succession of local positions — two summers at We Three; two years at Antoinette’s Coffee and Goodies; a stint with Kaweah Chakra, a high-end vegetarian bed-and-breakfast; and two years with an afterschool program in Visalia teaching kids cooking and art.
All these jobs were fun and fulfilling but none really situations where Lori could spread her culinary wings. With this new launch of dinner at the Totem, Lori has a chance to showcase her culinary skills.
At the Totem, Lori will have the latitude to create new dishes as she settles into the dinner routine and determines what works and what doesn’t. With Lori’s new Totem Burger, stuffed peppers, wedge salad, and the Totem’s proven success with its barbecued tri-tip and chicken, the dinner menu features an item or two that will please visitors from around the world and discriminating locals too.
Greg is also in the process of creating a new outdoor patio seating area on the west end of the building reminiscent of the beer gardens that are proliferating with the rising popularity of craft beers. And speaking of beer, there’s not a better lineup of draft beer selections anywhere in Three Rivers with Totem’s award winners that include General Sherman IPA, Wolf Among Weeds IPA, Redhook and, for those beer drinkers who dwell on the light side, Stella Artois and Budweiser.
The Totem Market is located on Highway 198 just up-canyon from the Mineral King Road intersection. Dinner is served Friday through Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m.