Get a cup to go at this unique coffee house 

Tolkien fans, take note. You don’t need an eagle from Mordor to visit the Heart o’ the Shire. Just catch a flight to Naknek. Heart o’ the Shire, a hobbit-themed coffee shop, sits at milepost 2 of the Alaska Peninsula Highway, a strip of pavement that connects Naknek to King Salmon and nowhere else.

The two towns share 850 residents and only one taxi, but the region buzzes each summer with Bristol Bay cannery workers and tourists visiting Katmai National Park and Preserve. That means out-of-town travelers stumble upon the Shire each summer. “It’s kind of fun when people discover you and they’re surprised,” said co-owner Eseta Sherman.

Eseta has run the coffeeshop since 2008 alongside her husband, Richard, and their four kids, Maica, Aniva, Bethany, and Jesse. That first season, they operated from a double-wide trailer and a tent. It was fishing season under the midnight sun and customers would arrive at all hours. “We didn’t know how to say no,” Eseta recalled. “When we closed the window, I remember us sliding down the front and hiding.”

After a successful trial run, the family bought a building, and the kids—ages 17 to 24 at the time—started decorating. The signs are hand-painted in Old English font. A weathered plywood portrait of Gandalf watches over the gravel lot. A round door opens to the kitchen, and you can take your photo in orc, elf, and hobbit cut-outs while you wait. 

Tolkien-themed art gives this coffee shop a whimsical feel.

The Shermans selected a Lord of the Rings theme in part because Eseta and Richard met in New Zealand, where the movies were filmed. Eseta was born in Samoa and raised in Auckland. Richard, from Montana, was studying geology in New Zealand at the time. Peter Jackson’s films were a big deal in the Sherman house, and the family still attempts to marathon the movies once a year. It’s part tradition and part research. “We get ideas for buildings,” Eseta laughed. 

Fitting of the family’s international background, their menu offers a range of flavors: mincemeat pasties and cardamom ginger bars from New Zealand; coconut buns soaking in coconut cream from Samoa; gargantuan cinnamon rolls from the USA. Drinks are offered in halfling, dwarf, and elf sizes (though most customers stick to saying small, medium, and large). Fictional lands are, of course, also represented. Customers can order baggins (baked dough with cheese, onions, and tomatoes) and shire loaves (coconut bread perfect for French toast). 

The café generally opens for the year in mid-May and closes with an all-day party on Halloween. Each winter, they rest and recover. The business is supposed to be a blessing, not a burden, Eseta said. All business decisions are made jointly among the six Shermans, even though two of the kids have moved away to Texas and Australia. “This was a way to work together as a family as long as we could,” Eseta added. 

She acknowledges they aren’t businesspeople and, after 15 years, “we’re still a work in progress.” They would eventually love to have an indoor community space, where elders can sit and visit, kids can work on homework, and everyone can connect. For now, the shop’s walk-up window remains a community hub. 

“We enjoy this work, we enjoy being together,” Richard said. “We also love our community. It’s a great place.”

Tolkien tourists are always welcome at Heart o’ the Shire, say the Shermans. “It means a lot when I see people appreciate Naknek, King Salmon, and South Naknek not just for the fish and not just for the bears, but to appreciate its quirkiness,” Eseta said. “I just love it. I’m so proud of where
we live.”   

J. Besl is a university staff writer, sharing stories of academic adventures in the north. You can find him at the bus stops and bike lanes of Anchorage.

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