The Times West Virginian

May 10, 2009

Shinnston’s Gillum House offers guests simple service

By Ann Ali

SHINNSTON — Kathleen Panek’s dream of operating a bed and breakfast started with a simple trip with her husband and four of their six children in the early 1980s.

“It was dark, and we went past a sign that said ‘Millstone Inn Bed and Breakfast,’” she said. “I said to John, ‘If they have availability, I want to stay there.’”

Kathleen said the family “rolled out” when they checked out because of the elaborate breakfast they had been served. She left with a new idea rolling through her head.

“I said, ‘I can do that,’ and John just said, ‘There has to be a hook,’” she said. “We went to seminars, and we immediately found the hook — cleaning.”

For this installment of “Working in West Virginia,” I traveled to Shinnston to work at a bed and breakfast. My work included a stay at The Gillum House, but I think I earned my keep.

Learning the Business

Kathleen said she never was a June Cleaver kind of mother, and she isn’t really a June Cleaver kind of innkeeper, either.

Kathleen said when she started The Gillum House in 1996, she had more time than money, so she attended every workshop and conference she could.

She thought The Gillum House was ready, but three weeks prior to her potential start date, she attended a Mountain Association of Bed and Breakfasts conference. She learned so much at the conference that she delayed her opening by two months, she said.

Kathleen was marketing chairwoman of the MABB from 1999 until August 2008 and also was elected to Shinnston City Council. She serves on the zoning commission, building commission, hosts the tourist information center for Shinnston, serves as president of the Garden Club and is part of the OnTrac Community team. She was named the Small Business Association’s home-based business champion of the year in 2006.

“You have to be willing to do things for your community to make it better,” she said, “or at least to keep it moving. Otherwise, you’re just taking up space.”

Kathleen and John took me through Shinnston, pointing out a park, a farm that Kathleen partners with for horse owners who stay at The Gillum House and need to rent a stable and also what she described as the “Cheers of restaurants,” Jimi’s Diner.

Kathleen said if guests haven’t booked a dinner package with her, she takes care of their reservations.

Kathleen said the MABB has guidelines, such as locks on doors, pillow protectors, secure rugs and fire extinguishers on each floor.

”Nobody is told how to decorate,” she said. “John and I live in two rooms, and you can’t have personal things in any of the other rooms.”

The Gillum House has several rooms all with their own decor, all of which honor former owners and residents of the home.

The Gillum Room has its own private bathroom and train decor as a nod to Troy Gillum’s tenure as a B&O; Railroad station agent. The Harris Room is feather-free for guests with allergies, contains a small bookshelf and features the “down-home” decor the Harris family was known for when it bought the home from the Gillum family. Guests of the Harris Room must share a bathroom with guests of Rosi’s Room, so hanging in each closet are soft robes to make late-night trips to the bathroom more comfortable.

Rosi’s Room is deliberately without television or telephone. A library on the first floor and another bookshelf in an upstairs hallway all feature books Kathleen wants guests to start and then take home to finish.

Little Touches

All the rooms have fresh flowers and a basket of fruit and snacks — just the start of Kathleen’s little touches.

I saw how she serves her guests but doesn’t sweat the small stuff. The Gillum House isn’t meant to be a museum — it’s got a laid-back feel, but Kathleen will jump when a guest needs something.

“I think people choose a B&B; because of the personal attention,” she said.

Kathleen had me up at 6 a.m. to prepare breakfast for five guests, who had about four different dietary restrictions. She warned that my day would start with breakfast preparations two hours before a guest requested the meal, which could have been worse — The Gillum House offers breakfast between 4 and 11 a.m.

When I made my way down to Kathleen’s kitchen, I learned an easy lesson.

“You take care of the innkeeper first,” she said. “So what do you absolutely need to begin your morning? My thing is orange juice.”

We started with coffee.

Kathleen’s son bought her a small, electric coffee roaster a few years ago, so a Gillum House breakfast features roasting coffee beans from a country chosen by the guests. Sugar-free, gluten-free pumpkin-raisin mini-muffins were next on our menu. Kathleen shared her secret: By baking mini-muffins, guests know with one bite whether they like the muffin. So by not wasting giant muffins, a few always remain for a to-go bag after breakfast.

She also has a plan for guests who book a lunch — an insulated bag with The Gillum House’s logo printed on it. Guests can take home a bag, each stuffed with a sandwich, a serving of chips, a vegetable, a bottle of water and a small bottle of hand sanitizer.

Fruit came next in our menu. I cut strawberries, mango and pineapple, then scooped cantaloupe and scattered blueberries. I learned how “little touches” don’t always equal “perfect” or “fancy.” We walked outside to clip some chives to go in the egg white, fat-free cream cheese and chive egg bake. Guests began filing down the stairs to ask for coffee or one of Kathleen’s hundred or so flavors of tea.

“Some innkeepers don’t even allow guests in their kitchen, but I think if you’re comfortable enough to come into my kitchen, you’re really comfortable, and that’s what I want,” Kathleen whispered.

I placed three different juices on the elegantly made table Kathleen and I set the night before. Juice glasses, knife rests and a bread plate were a little tricky for me. It had been years since I set such a full table.

Kathleen said most meals are the cook’s choice, after determining dietary restrictions and dislikes. Her refrigerator and freezer looked ordinary to me — free of stockpiles of endless varieties.

She said she simply buys in bulk when things are on sale and tries to avoid extra trips to the store. If a potential guest calls in the morning, she’s ready that afternoon. I was amazed to not see any lists anywhere in Kathleen’s house, but she assured me she’s learned her routines by trial and error.

We finished breakfast by making individual loaves of English muffin bread. Kathleen said the bread prompts nearly every guest to ask for a baggie to take his leftovers home. She happily obliges.

I filled five glass dishes with butter for each guest’s place and noticed how there was enough Fostoria glass mixed with antique dishes on the table to look impressive but still feel comfortable.

Cleaning Up

After our guests ate breakfast, we went upstairs to clean my room. Kathleen said she tells her guests their rooms are their homes for the duration, so unless they ask her to go in and replace the towels or linens, she gives them privacy.

Luckily, I didn’t have to scrub my shower, but I learned a few tricks to change bed sheets a little faster.

After the guests finished breakfast and my room was nearly clean, Kathleen and I cleared a patch of table and finally sat down to a cold, but delicious breakfast.

John began his work of cleaning the kitchen, which he does every day. The Gillum House doesn’t have a dishwasher. I immediately decided he earns his keep, too.

Kathleen said John’s company in Illinois began to downsize in the early 1990s, and so she worked two jobs while he went to art school to fulfill one of his long-time dreams. John painted nearly all the art in The Gillum House, and it is for sale.

Kathleen said John told her he knew she wouldn’t be happy living anywhere but her home state of West Virginia once their children were grown. So after weeks of looking, she stepped inside The Gillum House and just knew it would make her bed-and-breakfast dream come true.

“I had this little concern in the back of my brain ... that the dream would be better than reality,” Kathleen said. “But I couldn’t have dreamed this good in my wildest dreams.”