Archive for December, 2011

Caruso's Sandwich Company is nestling in at a building the Valley has been dining at since 1965. Located at the corner of Argonne and Montgomery, it is in the heart of the Valley's most intense culinary beat. If I was told I had to pick a two-block area in the Spokane Valley where I would be forced to dine every night for the rest of my life, this would be the spot. Across the street to the north lies a Pizza Hut, Ambrosia Bistro, Subway and Panda Express. Just to the south soar the towering signs of the behemoths of fastfood including Jack, Wendy, BK and McDonald's. Given that Longhorn Barbeque and Timber Creek Buffet are also in the hood, I could easily spend all eaternity dining around this cornucopia of eateries.

To compete in this mad melee of marketed meals Caruso's has sunk a lot of bread into the old and venerable building. Some of it went into this unusual little statue/art piece between the building and the sidewalk on the Argonne side. Around the corner on the northside of the building they put in a raised concrete patio with an outdoor gas firepit covered by what is left of the old carport that served for years when the building housed the A & W Rootbeer stand.

Converting the interior from Scotty's Bar and Grill, the building's most recent occupant, to the stylish sandwich shop it now is , took the most serious amount of lettuce. Gone are all traces of the former bar and everything has been redone, costing somewhere between 200k and 300k, I would guess. They are going to need a lot of dough to raise that kind of bread. While Caruso's is not a mint, they do indeed knead their dough each morning and make their own bread fresh from their secret recipes and I can testify to the tastiness of their sourdough variety.

As tasteful as the remodel project was done, the Cordon Bleu sandwich I had there recently was done even tastier. However, like remodelling these days, Caruso's sandwiches are spendy. A half sandwich is around $6 and a whole is $12 which is more than you would spend at a sit down restaurant. But most restaurants don't make this good of a sandwich, certainly the sub store across the way does not. Caruso's also serves pizza and breakfast as well as beer and wine which makes them unique with the speed and casualness of a fastfood plus the quality and variety of a good restaurant

But will this newcomer in the old building make it in today’s vast and competitive hospitality trade that is so well represented in the surrounding neighborhood? While most people love to play armchair restaurant owner  and believe they know all the moves new places should and should not make, I am agnostic which means I don’t know. It is a lack of false pride and know-it-allness based upon having owned and operated one for four years in sickness and in health. But I do know this property and  its history very well. Maybe there are hints about the future in the past, maybe not.

In 1965, one of the three Armstrong brothers who operated the  first national burger franchise business in the Spokane Valley, A & W, hired my dad  to put in the foundation to the building. My dad and his partner, Don Barden, had been running their sub-contracting company, Custom Basements, for three years at the time. Dad has been retired for nearly 13 years now and Don Barden has  passed away. I know A & W preceded McDonald’s in the Valley because Dad put in the foundation for that franchise’s first Valley location on Sprague across from U-City when I was in about 4th or 5th grade.

At their peak, the Armstrongs had five A & W’s in the Valley from Greenacres to Dishman. The Argonne store prospered and they called upon Custom Basements again in the summer of 1975 to install the foundation  for the eating area they were adding on to the west side of the drive-in. Since it was a summer construction project, I worked on the job myself. To call my father frugal, would be like calling Bill Gates wealthy. He still takes pride retelling the story of how he pulled off and reused the original footing formboards that had been buried in place for ten years to save the Armstrongs a few bucks. “They were a little soggy after all that time, but they worked fine,” Dad told me recently when I quizzed him about his history with the building.

For one reason or another, the A & W at the corner of Argonne and Montgomery did not make it out of the 80’s, nor did the other A & W’s run by the Armstrongs. In 1989 a guy who I had gone to school with from 3rd grade , Terry Mazzie, was hired by new owners to convert the A & W into a Wolffy’s. His construction company gave the building its second major remodel, updating it to an older burger selling era, the one just before the one  it had originally been built for. Through the 90’s Wolffy’s sold old-fashioned burgers and shakes the way they did in the 50’s.

Then around 2002 another friend of mine, Del Stratton, was hired to convert the premises from its Wolffy’s trappings into Scotty’s Bar and Grill. I watched this transformation fairly close since I was in the business at the time and Scotty was often at my business. He told me it cost $250,000 to give the place its third setting in 37 years. Though Scott Reckord  left that business not long after he and Patty opened it and went on to start up Sullivan Scoreboard with his new partner Deanna, Scotty’s made it for approximately 9 year’s before following Wolffy’s tracks down the trail of broken dreams and financial setback.

I don’t know who the Caruso people hired to complete this most recent do-over, but I know enough to know that they did a good job and that it cost a fair to middlin’ amount. Is the fourth time the charm? Most armchair owners would say the location is jinxed since three businesses ended there. But I don’t know.

It reminds me of another location in the Valley that my Dad and his partner also put in the foundation for back in the 60’s. Having stewarded their profits wisely through the years, by 1968 they were able to buy the old Torrey’s Lockers property at the corner of Sprague and Moffit and build a building for Mr. Steak. For 20 years that national franchise stayed and paid the rent, but then they left and were followed by a succession of forgotten ventures. By the time Mike Robb and his family tied up their Iron Horse there, the place had earned the reputation as a loser. That was about 12 years ago and the Horse is at full gallop.

So it seems to me that Caruso’s has a good shot. I know they have found a worthy building that has a rich history serving the hungry Valley well, built and rebuilt through the years by hard-working guys like my Dad and Terry and Del who aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty and then go into places like A & W and Wolffy’s and Caroso’s where they wash those hands and sit down for a good lunch.

(Well actually, Dad was too frugal to take the time to eat lunch at a restaurant or drive-in on a work day. He never took more than a 30-minute break to eat the lunch my mother prepared for him. But that is why he has been retired all these years and still owns the building at Sprague and Moffit along with other investments that allow him to travel with Mom and pick up the tab when he takes his family to places like Caruso’s.)
Caruso's on Urbanspoon

This is an old Valley Trivia piece from a past Scoop newsletter:  Long before the Valley had McDonald’s it had A & W Rootbeer stands and quite a few of them. One was at the current Conley’s Restaurant location next to the White Elephant, one was at the corner of Montgomery and Argonne where Scotty’s Bar and Grille is now located, another was on Trent near Fowler road ,one was just east of Deja Vu(the old Dishman Theater), another was at the current location of King’s restaurant in Greenacres  and the last was located at the Mustard Seed location recently torn down when Winco Grocery opened.

To read more Spokane Valley trivea click here.

A feature story on Sullivan Scoreboard’s start.

One on the Iron Horse.

One day last summer our youngest daughter came home and started going on and on about some cool  garage sale she ran across down at 35th and Pierce and was so excited about it she took Elaine down to check it out. Turns out it was far more than a garage sale though there were amazing things being sold out of these people’s garage.Being against all shopping establishments from garages to malls to Ebay and beyond, it wasn’t until last weekend that Elaine finally succeeded to drag me down there.

What I found was a magical spot in the Valley that neither Jacque’s gushing nor Elaine’s many purchases prepared me for. The place had it all for me: a humble carpenter/craftsman/ artist, John Dunning, who works with his wife , Jen, running a little store out of their shop (it was not a garage though how does a teenage girl know the difference?). It is where he labors during time stolen after hours away from his day job. It was full of original pieces of handcrafted art and furniture as well as below-reasonably priced reconditioned used pieces. And then there was the JohnCave that would make both Batman and the Iron Man, as well as every mortal man like myself, as green as the Green Lantern with envy.

At this out-of-the-way little shop at 35th and Pierce, John takes those gifts God gave him, elevating and combining them to produce my favorite kind of art, “carpentry art” (which is a lot better than carpentry ants). By that I mean art that only an artist with carpentry skills can create. Being a carpenter myself, it is art I appreciate because  it requires skill it took years for me to acquire at a more modest  level and also a creativity and artistry I will  never attain.  A guy like me is lucky just to be able to appreciate his art.

This is what I am talking about. One of John's favorite mediums is wine barrel parts and pieces which he says are readily available from the local wineries. What he does with spent wine barrels is beyond craft by a mile or two. It is art. Though my photography is not flattering to John's work, check out the hanging light, the stools, the table , the heart /barrel-strap art piece. It is all a matter of wine barrels + creativity + God-given artistry = great shopping opportunities.

Some more examples of John's talent and creativity and my poor photography.

This is a nice refurbished military desk we picked up for $45 (without dickering). Notice the leather chair in the background. They have a bunch more like that for sale that they found on Craigslist. J.C. Penny's sold them in the 70's and they are all mint like every thing else in the store.

It was funny, while I greatly admire all of pieces on display I was most drawn to the background of half of the store. Elaine, on the other hand, barely noticed anything but all the great items for sale. One side of the store is John's shop area and the other is his mancave. The two pictures spliced together above show opposite ends of the John Cave. On the right is the full kitchen that John did all the work on and the left pic shows the fireplace and mantle he installed. I don't think he made the plasma television himself , though it would not surprise me.

I highly suggest that you check out their blog which has much better photography and displays lots more of the items they have for sale. I suggest even more highly that you go to their Christmas sale this Saturday .

Learn more at their blog.