Longhorn Short Stories

Prying out the Story
If ever I’ve met a colorful old timer with a lot of great stories to tell it would be Don Lehnertz, but we were just lucky to get him to warm up and start talking. I had been working on the Longhorn story and people kept telling me I needed to talk to Don.
So I called out one morning to Airway Heights Longhorn to see if he was around.
The woman who answered said he had just left but he would be at his secondhand store just down the road. She said we could not call ahead because he did not have a phone, but she was sure he’d love to talk. With that encouragement we decided to drive out in a wicked snowstorm and take our chances.
We made our way to the store’s front door on a path carved out only by snow boots through the foot deep snow. We found Don bundled up in several layers of coats and shirts and boots and warm hat reading the paper as he sat alone next to a warm wood stove, surrounded by a vast array of secondhand goods piled nearly to the ceiling.
” I don’t have anything to say,” he said , hardly looking up from his paper,”You should go talk to my brother Chic.” Disappointed, but undaunted, Elaine gingerly asked one question which he politely answered and then she asked another… three and half hours later we had the whole story of the Longhorn’s early years. We just stood there next to the warm stove and felt it slowly grow colder as Don warmed up more and more, too busy talking about the old days to throw another log on the fire. “Let me tell you this last story before you go,” he said at least 3 times as he started in on another one.
Read his tale of five brothers who came from Texas and grew their humble barbecue business from a downtown cafe to an area icon that has catered to presidents, governors, foreign dignitaries and thousands of locals all over the Northwest for more than 50 years.
Serving the Big Boy’s Longhorn Style

Through the years, Longhorn catered to many bigwigs with a  taste for barbecue, Don Lehnertz told me. For example, they went out to Fairchild and catered the the Air Force One for Lynden Johnson and company back in the 60’s. They served their bbq to Hubert Humphrey on his campaign trail and and twice fed  President  Bush (senior). But they were not big on giving anyone special treatment.
“During Expo there were a lot of governors coming through,” Don said, adding that he remembers  looking out from the kitchen on a closed day and seeing a man in a suit walking through the restaurant. “I went out and said,’can I help you?'” he said, “the man said he was a security agent with governor so and so and they would be coming in the next day. He said they wanted that table and that table and that table and they would be here at noon. I said that’s fine but we don’t take reservations. The guy hands me his card and says,’you don’t understand’, and I said, ‘no, you don’t understand. There will be a line out that door tomorrow for lunch and your governor is going to have to wait in that line. We serve faces not names.’ Well, the guy thought I was insane and left.”
While they did not give anyone reservations they did take care of some governors like Albert Rosellini. “The first thing he did when he came to Spokane was come here and eat,” Don said, “He was good friends with my brother Dave and Dave would be back in the kitchen working when Rosellini came in and Dave would say, ‘ Are you hungry, Governor?’ and he’d say ‘ yes’, and Dave would say, ‘do you want some ribs?’ and the governor would say,’yes’ and Dave would tell him to open the pit and pick out a slab, which he did. Then Dave would grab it and cut it up, put it on a paper plate and hand it to him.
“One night Rosellini called and asked when we were closing. I said, ‘we’re always open for you, governor’. He dedicated the first Savings and Loan in this area that night and he said he would be over about 11. I said ‘that would be fine. The state troopers know how to do it. Just tell them to bring you to the back door.’  None of the help would leave because they all wanted to talk to the governor. Sure enough he should up at 11 and we served him  right at the counter, he didn’t even sit at a table.”

The Longhorn, The Russian Expo 74′ Emissaries, and the International Appreciation of Flatuation

Apparently the world is fascinated by the Longhorn wood-pit style of barbecuing that Spokanites take for granted, because during Expo 74′, several countries sent their emissaries to tour the Airway Height restaurant and bbq production pit.
“Expo was such a great thing,” Don said, explaining that while Longhorn did not have a booth there, they did cater several events, which drew a lot of international attention. “Emissaries from all over the world would come out and tour our kitchen,” he said ” and they were all so different”
” The Japenese actually brought a ladder,” he said, “They would climb up on that ladder to get pictures from up above our pits at different angles.”
“The Russians didn’t bring a camera, the English brought some, but every Japenese had a camera,” he said.
The Cold War was very real at the time of Expo and the Russian government watched their people very closely fearing for defectors who might skip the country. They could only travel in escorted groups and they could not venture more than 5 miles outside of Spokane.
“They asked their people what they would like to do and they all said they wanted to go to that Longhorn place,” Don said, “But we were 7 miles away and so they had to call the Kremlin and get special permission to come out. I thought that was really an honor that they got permission from the Kremlin to come see us.”
“The Russian group was really somber and serious,” he said, adding that an interpretor would soberly relay his words as he guided them through the kitchen while they nodded their heads earnestly.
“Then we came to the baked beans and the interpretor asked if we cooked with gas but I thought he was asking do you get gas when you eat the beans, and I said you might,” Don said, “When he told them about the misunderstanding, the whole group just cracked up and slapped their knees and laughed and laughed. They really got a kick out of that.”

The Early Days on Second Avenue
The original location on Second avenue was from the old days. “It was “I” shaped,” Don said, “It just went straight back. On the sides there booths and down the center were tables. The kitchen was towards the back and the bathrooms were all the way back.”
“We made a big mistake hiring a western artist to paint a mural  from the front to the back right on the wall. It would be worth a lot of money today.”
Getting a Southern style pit in the new place was a chore as well. “There were a lot of real good masons around but nobody knew nothing about barbecue pits. So Gene designed it just like he wanted and they built it for him. It really takes a knack , it had to be just right. The production side is where you cook the meat and the warming side is where you hold the meat and they are two different temperatures. Back then we had someone watching it all day. You have to get the thing to draw just right, where the smoke comes in from the fire and goes out the stack, which ran at a low angle maybe 20′ to the back wall where we tied into the building’s chimney. We couldn’t have gotten away with that today.”
Up above there was a hotel where people lived month to month, many of whom were female students attending Kinman Business Academy or the Sacred Heart Nursing School. “The pit would start on fire and those people would coming running out on the street in their panties afraid the whole place was going to burn down. It never did,” Don said, adding that they always got things under control but not before the fire department was notified. “They would come in dragging their hoses and taking over. Even though we didn’t need them.”
“Second avenue was a real salty place back then,” he said “there was a bar on every corner. The cops didn’t drive cars back then and they would strap the troublemakers to the lampposts and the paddy wagon would come along and pick them up.”
They finally left that location when Don beaned a diner in the head one night. “We had to carry all the catering equipment right through the dining area and I had a steam tray on my shoulder and hit a guy along the side of his head. It about knock him out  and made him mad as hell. Gene said, ‘oh, we can’t have that’ and that was the deciding factor in why we moved out to Airway Heights.”
Hitchhiker Does Good

While Duke Fette was raised in Munster,Texas and related to the Lenhertz brothers, he was a good bit younger and only knew a few of the nine children from that family who were his second cousins. “I joined the Navy and got stationed over at Whidbey Island,” he said, “When I heard they were over in Spokane I decided to come see them on leave and so I hitchhiked over about 3 times.”
“After I got out, I had a wanderlust and so I threw my stuff in a vehicle and plowed up here,” Duke said, adding that he was looking for work. But Don Lenhertz, one of the brothers who owned the Longhorn could not give him a job.
” I remember he showed up and I didn’t really know him, but I let him stay with us and I got him a job at the Holiday Inn.” Don said, adding that it was not long before the owner of that hotel called him up to complain. ” The guy asked if Duke was working for us or him because one of Duke’s jobs was to pick customers up from the airport and he would drive them by our Airway Heights restaurant and tell them we had the best food in Spokane.”
It was not long before they found a spot in the kitchen for Duke at the the Longhorn and put him to work. Eventually he worked up to being a partner and then buying them out. Duke still owns the production plant on Montgomery with Dave Lenhertz.
“We ship our ribs and sauce all over the West,” he said, ” those California stores don’t mess around. They buy 40,000 pounds of ribs at a time. We sell them in 20 pound boxes and come summer time, you better have a lot of ribs ready to go.”

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