Zeke Sawyer

When Zeke Sawyer’s dad, Bennie, passed away in 2005 at the relatively young age of 63, the Spokesman ran an article about the man and his career. I found that amazing considering that his checkered career as a drummer, night club owner and burger joint operator had ended in bankruptcy and broken health 8 years earlier when he was just 55.

To Zeke, who recently pulled off one of his dad’s old tricks by opening The Bag O’ Nails Pub in Millwood with little more than imagination and determination and perspiration, it seemed only natural that the local paper would find his father’s passing to be newsworthy. After all, he had cut a wide path that touched, in one way or another, most everyone who lived in the Valley during the thirty-odd years when he was making his mark.

Zeke’s life was not just touched by his father’s path, it was formed and guided and forever inspired by it, for better or worse. For example, it seemed natural to Zeke, to take a job as doorman and then bartender at the Stateline go-go bar, Bosom Buddies, when he was just 19. His dad’s band, after all, was the house band in the 60’s at the Kon Tiki when it was known throughout the entire Northwest as the topless bar to end all topless bars.
When Zeke was born in 1971, his dad had already moved away from the Kon Tiki but he did not go far. He and partner Al DeWood bought the quiet little bar across the street called the El Patio and then, using their limited resources, built on a huge addition. It quickly became a local phenomenon. “That place was packed for years,” Zeke told me recently, explaining that while the drinking age in Washington was 21, in Idaho it was only 19 during all the years his dad ran the place. “The younger drinkers flocked there.”

Bennie had to readjust when Zeke’s Mom and him divorced three years later. “Dad wanted to find something that he could run and still raise me as a single father,” said Zeke, who’s earliest memories as an only child were filled with entertaining himself during the day in the El Patio playing records or messing around with the bands as they set up and rehearsed or helping the 7-Up man on delivery days. “In 1975 Dad bought the old Pringle’s service station that had been built in 1910 at the corner of Wellesley and Harvard in Otis Orchards.”

Again Bennie scraped together his resources, added on to the old building and then opened the Otis Orchards Ice Creamery while simultaneously running the El Patio. But in 1978, Bennie and young Zeke left the wild Stateline behind for good. They moved into a home that had been converted from a root beer stand that the Pringle’s operated in the 1920’s next to their service station. “My room was always cold in the winter,” he said. “I had to sleep with my dad to keep warm.”

After getting the ice creamery going, Bennie sold the business, leased the building and went back to being a full time musician playing in house bands in Spokane and Idaho. When the new owners failed, his sister Norma came in and Norma’s Burger Barn was born. After a few years Norma left the fledging business and Bennie, who had recently married a woman with two young boys, took over and turned the place into another local icon.

“When he took over it was just burgers and chicken,” he said. “Then he bought a mini-franchise called Idaho Pizza-To-Go and put that in there and then we added dinner and steaks and ribs and the place just got busier and busier. We even added breakfast.” All the while Zeke was working with his father and learning the ropes and everything was going fine until the night November 7, 1989.

“I remember being in my room and hearing a bunch of yelling and when I looked out the window it looked like the sun had dropped down into Otis Orchards,” he said, “It was the most ungodly sickening feeling I have ever felt. I loved that building.” The fire burnt down the front addition his dad built that had been the restaurant while the rear of the building was saved by a fire wall.

Being an arson fire, there was speculation and accusations pointed toward Zeke or his dad. With the fire department and the community skeptical, it would take 3 1/2 years to settle affairs and get Norma’s rebuilt and running. In the meantime, Zeke found a small burger stand at 11923 East Trent called the Deli Burger that had just closed after 14 years. Bennie decided to rent it and put him in charge of what they would call the Burger Barn Express. He even allowed his 18 year old son to buy into the new business. “I was pretty wild and I think he did that mainly to get some control over me,” Zeke said, adding that within a year he sold his share back to his father and went out into the big world on his own. “In hindsight, I probably should not have done that.”

While their lives would remain intertwined with Zeke going in and out of the family business until 1997 when Bennie filed bankruptcy, Zeke’s life and career has been an independent/dependent mirror of his father’s life and career. For example, to this day Zeke plays drums in bands as his father had nearly all his life.

In 1995 Zeke and his new wife had a boy they named Zeke Jr. A few years later she left them in Seattle where he had taken a job as a night club manager for the people who owned Bosom Buddies at the Stateline. Like his father when he was left to rear him alone, Zeke sought out something more suitable for a single dad with a baby boy.

“I found a small drive-thru grocery store that was available for rent and spent 9 months remodeling it into an ice creamery,” Zeke said, explaining that he did all the work himself at the Snohomish location while working as a d.j. and manager for the burgeoning nightclub company that eventually evolved into the multi-state conglomerate, Deja-Vu.

“The ice creamery started out great. It was the beginning of summer but then the weather changed and so I added doughnuts and actually got it to where I was selling and delivering 80 dozen donuts a day to local convenience stores,” Zeke told me. “But I just could not pull it off while being a single father.”

Zeke brought little Zeke home to Spokane and for a while helped Bennie in his ill-fated attempt to expand the Norma Burger Barn name to three other locations in the Valley. When it was all said and done, Bennie filed for bankruptcy and gave all that he had accumulated back to the bank. “It literally broke my father’s health and put him in bed for months,” Zeke said, “and it broke my heart to watch.”

Ironically, after bouncing around the hospitality trade in the Valley for a few more years, Zeke discovered that the little burger stand at 11923 East Trent was vacant once again and so he and his step brother Nathan set up Little Bennie’s at the former Norma’s Burger Express location that Zeke had let slip away more than a decade before.

Though it is all a bit confusing, it was during this time that Bennie passed away. The year was 2005. The brothers carried on and did well at Little Bennies but after a while Nathan wanted to move on and so Zeke bought him out. One day shortly after that, a hood fire started in the drive-in and though Zeke quickly contained it, he had to notify the fire department and soon they arrived.

“The fire inspector who worked on the Burger Barn fire years before showed up because he heard my name over the radio,” Zeke said. “As soon as I saw him I flipped out and started to yell at him. This was the guy that wanted to pin Norma’s fire on my dad or me. I told him to stay the hell off my property.”

The inspector persisted and said he just wanted to let Zeke know that someone else had confessed to the arson several years before. “I said you sons-of-bitches let my father die without telling him that I had nothing to do with it or letting me know that my father had nothing to do with it,” Zeke said, explaining that he felt that his stormy relationship with his father must have always put just the smallest question in Bennie’s mind and vice versely he always had a faint wondering about his father even though both always professed a firm belief in each other’s innocence.

But that was ancient history in Zeke’s life and he did not have much time to look in the rear-view mirror. In 2009 he felt it was time to sell out and move into something more stable like construction when a good friend asked him to join him at his door business. “I was barely making it at Little Bennie’s and working all the time and so I sold the business,” he said. Unfortunately, the recession hit within months and made Little Bennie’s look like a seaworthy tugboat chugging off into the distance as Zeke’s new door business took on water and then sank out of sight when he injured his knee and could no longer work in the field.

“I had no idea what to do. I tried to find a job but no one would hire me,” he said. “I finally decided I had to invent a job for myself and so I went back to what my father always told me: you don’t have to have a lot of money to open a place you just have to have a lot of imagination.” With that in mind, Zeke began looking at every available location in Spokane and he came up with a concept at the Bag O’ Nails next to Albertson’s that Bennie would find very interesting, I know that I do.

Like his dad who turned a dilapidated service station in Otis Orchards in 1975 into a place that has been gone for years but is still well-known to this day, Zeke saw opportunity in a closed sandwich shop in the strip mall next to Papa Murphy’s. While short on resources, Zeke has been long on imagination and optimism and has created something that Spokane has never seen. For now he can only sell sandwiches because he has no kitchen with a hood and he can only sell beer and wine because he doesn’t have the where-with-all to set up a full bar. You might call it a deli bar.

Whatever it is, it is an original and Zeke is just getting going. He’s already been able to double his menu and quadruple his beer selection. He’s added karaoke and has big plans for the football season. “I’m succeeding at this because of what Dad taught me,” Zeke said. “I don’t have much money but I have a lot of creativity and I’m not afraid to work.” You can find Zeke behind the bar or in the kitchen at the Bag O’ Nails seven days a week.

 

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