Home News Local News Huntington eatery a community placee
Huntington eatery a community placee
By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
HUNTINGTON The staff and patrons at the fictional television bar "Cheers" are famous for knowing your name and always being glad you came.
But that crowd has nothing on the group of friends and customers whom Mike Wiley and Scott Whelden discovered they could count on when they re-opened Howell's Cafe and Streamliner Lounge earlier this spring.
The Huntington eatery and attached bar, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has closed twice the last four years. It was re-opened by the two men and their wives, Angie Wiley and Monica Whelden, on March 12, and it's been doing steady, even growing business since.
But meeting the self-imposed deadline to open that first day on time was not a task the owners say they could have accomplished alone.
On March 11, the two men accepted delivery from a vendor who inquired which day they planned to open. When the owners replied "tomorrow," the delivery man laughed and told them they'd never make it.
"After all," Wiley recalled, "we were still sanding the bar at that point."
But the delivery man didn't know the owners' secret weapon: an almost limitless supply of free and enthusiastic help that could be mobilized within minutes.
"We probably had 30 people in here within five minutes to clean up, sweep and get the place ready for opening day," Wiley said. "People we knew only as acquaintances were in here cleaning up. It's a good feeling that people would drop everything to help us make our own deadline."
The two men got a further boost from the people who'd leased Howell's Streamliner previously, Sid and Joetta Hall, who were conveniently off work from their new jobs the first two days of the re-opening. Instead of resting, the two each put in 14-hour days to help smooth the transition.
"They were elated, just like the rest of us were," Wiley said.
Much of the interior of the historic restaurant the building dates back to 1891 had already been meticulously restored by a previous owner, June Kenick, and the seating area was already capped by a gorgeous pressed tin ceiling. But a lot of work remained, Wiley said, including replacing all the booths and remodeling the kitchen.
As they prepared the restaurant for opening day, the men kept their day jobs Wiley at Ash Grove Cement, and Whelden as the maintenance man with the City of Huntington. They worked nights and weekends to prepare for their big opening.
"We probably got 90 percent of the work done, but we relied on friends and family extensively to make our deadline," Wiley said.
With some kitchen remodeling and the purchase of a hood from El Erradero in Baker City the kitchen took on more of the look that Wiley remembers while eating at Howell's Cafe as a child.
"Scott had always wanted to purchase the restaurant, and we'd talked on and off for a year and a half about it," Wiley said. "It was something we couldn't do alone, but between the two of us we found we could make it work."
The owners make their partnership work by dividing up the labor. Wiley tends the bar, while Whelden rustles up the meals. At breakfast time, Whelden's culinary efforts include mammoth 16-inch pancakes.
"That guy's not getting special treatment," Wiley says as the pancakes are placed before an appreciative diner. "They're all that big."
Monica Whelden works four or five days in the restaurant, but Angie Wiley draws a pass she's minding the Jiffy Market down the street, which the Wileys also own.
Mike Wiley said the new business got help from the Baker Enterprise Growth Initiative, which helps start-up and established businesses to get started or grow.
"She made a lot of recommendations, and we took her up on some of them," he said. "She told us we should find time to sit down with people in the restaurant business. They were a help, but we should have talked to more people, especially about the management end of the business. You can save a lot of time and headaches talking to people who have been through it before."
Ditto for his work behind the bar, Wiley said.
"I've never tended bar before, so I've learned a lot from my customers," he said. "I get a lot of, We used to make it this way' from them. It's like on-the-job training from your patrons."
The two men are not unaware of the importance of an eatery in a town Huntington's size.
"A full-service restaurant means a lot to a community," he said. "Families like to sit down and have a meal together, and this gives them the chance to do it locally."
Space above Howell's was at one time used for apartments, and the two men would like to open a bed-and-breakfast in its place next year.
For now, all the work will go into making the restaurant and bar work.
"It's going to take a lap around the calendar before we tackle any other challenges," Wiley said. "Making it through the winter (without tourist business) will be the challenge.
"We've both quit good jobs, so there's no choice but to make it."