Longhorn Barbeque Part 2

To all of us who have enjoyed the Longhorn for so many years , this Spokane institution seems to be an unmitigated success story from it’s arrival in 1958 through today. But in reality the business went through a mid-life crises in the 80’s when the bank closed the Longhorn’s account and they came within a hair’s breadth of being shut down.
Duke Fette, came up from Munster, Texas in 1964 and went to work shortly thereafter for his second cousins, the five Lenhertz brothers, Claude,Don,Chic,Dave and Gene. Gene and Dave had started the business in 1948 in Houston and then ran the Longhorn for 10 years there before moving to a small cafe in downtown Spokane where the other brothers joined them. By the time Duke arrived, they had outgrown that location and set up shop in Airway Heights.
“I had a lot of experience in food service in the Navy. I just always seemed to wind up in the mess hall,” Duke told me recently, ” So when I went to work up here, I’d see them doing things the wrong way and I’d go to Dave and say ‘ Man, that’s just not kosher’.”  The brothers came to rely and trust Duke’s expertise and character and made him a partner in 1972 when they built the Valley restaurant. While the business expanded through the 70’s,the older Lenhertz brothers grew anxious to retire and move on.
” I remember the business meeting when somebody stood up and said ‘ why in the hell don’t we just sell this damn thing?’ Once that got started it just didn’t stop,” Duke said, explaining that it was decided that he and the youngest brother, Claude, would buy  the business. That was in 1983 and it wasn’t long before the two expanded and built the production center on Montgomery. Where once 6 partners had run the Longhorn operation, now the two new partners struggled to run the expanded version.
“Between Airway Heights, the Valley and the production center, it just got pretty burdomsome,” Duke said, adding that times were tough and their relationship strained. “One day Claude said ‘ why don’t I just buy you out’ and I said, o.k.”
For a while it looked like Duke had put the Spokane Longhorn business behind him and moved on, until he got a phone call that abruptly changed everything.
“They sat me down and said, ‘ the Longhorn is out of business,” Duke said, ” I said ‘whoa, what’s going on here? I’m not involved any more. But they told me my name was still on a lot of it.” So like it or not, Duke came back on board around 1987.
“It was really a mess. We were behind in loan payments and taxes,” he said, ” so we went out and borrowed $20,000 from a family friend, and then another $20,000 and then after that things started to work out. Dave agreed to come back on and then after awhile we got Chic back and then we were all right.”
In 1992, the partners signed on the future by making Randy Eckhart, Bill Miller and Dave Allen, Dave’s son, junior partners. These three, who had worked at Longhorn from their teens, would provide the energy and ambition to sustain the Longhorn tradition and future promise. 1992 was the year the Longhorn set up shop in Auburn, and set the course for Longhorn West, which Dave Allen has expanded and runs on his own today.
In 2002, Bill and Randy took over the Spokane restaurants and built their own production plant at the Airway Heights location. When asked about what’s cooking for the future, Randy said it is about that production plant and potatoe salad.
At that location they converted the banquet hall into a meat barbecuing facility and, with an eye to the future, a potatoe salad plant. “We built this potatoe salad operation where we could pump out 1,200 gallons an hour.” Randy said this week, “We thought,’ look at all these delis around Spokane, why not put our potatoe salad in all of them.’  We already knew people were buying them by the gallon from our restaurants.”
Last year they produced 250,000 pounds of potatoe salad which they sold to nearly every local grocery store and the local Costco stores. As we spoke, Randy was working on going to the next stratosphere in the potatoe salad market. ” I should find out today if we are getting all the Costco stores,” he said, “Even if we get just half, we would be doing something like 3 million pounds a year.”
To meet that kind of demand, Randy said they would have to rely even more heavily on a “co-packer” that they use now to
produce their brand of potatoe salad. Additionally, in the works are negotiations to sell their potatoe salad to all 28 Albertson’s locations (they now sell to 6) and the Washington Penitentiary System. Randy added that they are starting to sell their barbecue beans to stores and are planning to do the same with their macaroni salad.
But his heart, and Bill’s, is also very much concerned with making sure the two local restaurants continue to produce happy customers. ” We are working longer hours than ever to make sure that our staff is serving our food with the same Longhorn flare that people are used to,” Randy said, adding that they are adding entrée salads and fish to be competitive in today’s high-priced beef market “The Longhorn has been around 52 years and we want to make sure it is around another 52 years.”
Duke,who has “retired” to his cattle ranch south of Mica and still owns the Montgomery plant- which ships Longhorn ribs and bbq sauce all over the West- feels good about the hands he has placed the family business in. “We are lucky to have those boys,” he said about Randy and Bill, “They are really doing a good job at it.” And so the bbq pits lit in Houston Texas in 1948
are well tended and their future is secure.

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