Talking With: Ron Schluter, Emporium Restaurant, Scottsbluff, NE
Ron Schluter, a former postmaster, and his wife, Sara, unpredictably created an award-winning upscale restaurant in small-town Nebraska. Neither one had previous food-service experience. Ron tells the story, interspersed with his signature belly laughs.
First a bit of intro: Scottsbluff was founded in 1899 along an important landmark, now called the Scotts Bluff National Monument, along the Oregon Trail. Thousands of settlers passed this way on their way West to begin new lives. Today, with a population of 15,000, the city is the largest in the Nebraska Panhandle.
All The Write Places: How did you happen to come to Scottsbluff?
Ron Schluter: Both my wife and I were born in Lincoln, Nebraska. After we married, I took a job with the U.S. Postal Service at the regional office in St. Louis. All of us got riffed, and I thought, “What do I want to do and where do I want to go?”
I told Sara, “I found something I think I’d like to do, but you have to keep an open mind. I’d like to move to Scottsbluff, Nebraska. There is a postmaster job open there.”
This was in 2000. I’d never been a postmaster, and I’d never been to Scottsbluff. She said, “No way.” She thought I’d bumped my head in the shower that morning.
Three hours later, she called me and said, “I’ll do it.”
I asked what changed her mind.
She said she did some research. “I found a Clinique counter at a local department store. There’s a Target store, and they have a Starbucks at the local grocery store. You have to promise me we won’t stay there more than three years.”
I promised. I applied for the postmaster job and got it. I held the job until I retired in 2008.
Q: How did you get into the restaurant business?
A: I had always wanted to open a juice bar. When we lived in St. Louis, there was a great juice bar where they do wheatgrass shots and lots of other things. I started going because I was losing some weight and thought it would be a good way for me to eat healthy.
This place (the Emporium) was a dinky little coffee shop with an established business when we bought it in 2001. There were only two coffee shops in Scottsbluff at the time. Now there are 13 or 14. I thought I could turn it into a juice bar, but after spending $2,500 for a vegetable juicer, I realized this town was not ready for juicing. (Hearty laugh.)
The coffee business did well, and I thought if I sell coffee I ought to learn something about it. So I went to the Specialty Coffee Association of America and learned how to brew the perfect cup of coffee. Now we have two more coffee locations in town.
Q: How did you come to expand into food?
A: When we bought the coffee shop, it had a small lunch business with three sandwiches: egg salad, chicken salad and fake crab salad. I dumped the fake crab salad because we weren’t excited about it, and got rid of the egg salad because the next day it starts to turn gray. Instead, I offered a tuna salad on a sourdough baguette with sprouts. People loved it but not the spouts. It was just a little TOO different. (Hearty laugh.)
By 2004, everything was okay, but we had only 7 tables. That wasn’t enough to be profitable. We either had to get bigger or quit. So we had a family meeting–our three kids and Sara–and voted whether to expand into a full-service restaurant. I was the only one who voted No. We didn’t know anything about opening a restaurant, but we learned. (Hearty laugh.)
We opened for dinner in November 2004. Sara is a wonderful cook, and we have an amazing chef who came to us from Napa Valley. He moved here to be closer to his family.
In the beginning, we weren’t going to serve any alcohol. The problem is, everyone wants a cocktail for dinner or they at least want it available. We decided it we had to have it, we would only have top-shelf brands.
Back in 2010, I competed for and received an Award of Excellence from “Wine Spectator.” That’s the only year I did it. We know we have a good wine list.
We also were named one of Nebraska’s Top 10 Restaurants by CultureTrip.com.
Q: Looking back, how do you feel about this grand adventure called the Emporiuim?
It’s been a very steep learning curve. We thought we were doing this great economic thing for our family. It wasn’t. (Belly laughs again.) We were really surprised how restaurants suffer with dips in the economy. In 2007 and 2008, if it weren’t for me having another income as a postmaster, we would have closed.
On the other hand, owning the restaurant is a joy. We meet the most wonderful people from all over the world. They come here to follow the Oregon Trail, to see the Old West, looking for cowboys and Indians. We had people from Australia and Europe who think they are going to see a sheriff on a horse. Everyone has been very good about recommending us.
Q: Why should someone visit the Scottsbluff area?
A: There’s a lot of historical significance here with the Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail and Gold Rush and all the sites where the pilgrims and pioneers came through. There weren’t just a couple of wagons. There were literally hundreds of thousands of wagons.
My great-great grandfather built wagons on Long Island. He went West and stopped in northern Nebraska and put up a shop repairing wagons for people going through. If you go out there, you can still see the ruts made by the wagon wheels long ago.
In addition to the magnitude of the history, you can’t deny the wonderful hospitality you find here.
1818 First Ave.
Scottsbluff, NE 69361
Many thanks to the Emporium Restaurant for hosting my most delightful dinner and evening.