Durkee doldrums: Locals fear Ash Grove layoffs will doom businesses

By ED MERRIMAN Baker City Herald November 27, 2009 11:30 am

DURKEE — At the Hungry Redneck Cafe, one of two businesses left in Durkee, Bozcho “Bo” Lettunich has seen his sales drop more than 30 percent since officials at the nearby Ash Grove Cement plant announced plans to lay off 68 of the factory’s 116 workers in mid-December.

“I have fewer customers coming in from Ash Grove. People are scared. They don’t know what will happen with these layoffs,” Lettunich said.

The Ash Grove plant is one of the larger private employers in Baker County.

In Durkee Valley, about 23 miles southeast of Baker City along Interstate 84, it’s very nearly the only one.

Durkee also has a post office, the Hungry Redneck Cafe and the combination Nyssa Co-op and Durkee General Store.

Lettunich said business was pretty brisk during the first three years after he opened the Hungry Redneck in a building that formerly housed a restaurant called the Wagon Wheel.

“I had 18 to 20 Ash Grove workers who were regulars. They came in almost every day after the shift change (at 4 p.m.),” he said.

The Ash Grove contingent, combined with a regular clientele of truckers who pulled off Interstate 84, local ranchers and ranch hands and their families, as well as a few tourists and diners from Baker City and Huntington, kept the Hungry Redneck busy enough that Lettunich employed a staff of six cooks and waitresses.

After Ash Grove made some early layoffs in mid-October, Lettunich said his regulars and other occasional customers from the cement plant stopped coming in.

And his freeway trade is down due to the recession and traffic interruptions caused by freeway work.

As a result, Lettunich said he had to lay off two people.

“I have really good employees. I hated to ask them to take unemployment, but I had no choice,” he said. “I didn’t know what else I could do. October was 30 percent down from last year, and November is looking pretty bad.”

Lettunich is keeping the Hungry Redneck open seven days a week for now, but he’s trimmed two hours from his weekday hours, closing at 8 p.m. instead of 10 p.m.

With two fewer employees, Lettunich said he’s having to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, instead of the eight hours a day, five days a week he had been working.

Across the parking lot at the combination Nyssa Co-op gas station and Durkee General Store, George Dunn, a ranch caretaker in the Durkee area, said he doesn’t know where he’d go if the valley’s only gas station/general store closed.

“This is where we come for gas, propane, a cup of coffee or a cold drink. This is the only place you can pick up groceries without driving 30 miles to Baker City or 20 miles to Huntington,” Dunn said.

“A lot of people around here have propane heat and propane cook stoves,” Dunn said, adding that if people in Durkee ran out of propane in the winter and had to drive all the way to Baker to pick it up, they might return to find the water pipes in their homes or trailers frozen.

“It would be a real serious problem if the co-op closed down and we couldn’t get propane here,” he said.

Dunn said his son, and a lot of the children of Ash Grove workers and ranchers in the area, attend school in Huntington.

“I’m worried about what will happen to the school in Huntington if Ash Grove shuts down,” Dunn said. “They contribute a lot to the school, and pay a big chunk of the taxes that keep that school open.”

Allan Driver, a 49-year-old gas station and general store attendant at the co-op, said it’s the only place within 20 miles where Durkee residents and Ash Grove workers can pick up the things they need on a daily basis, everything from butter and milk to pet food.

Besides groceries, the co-op’s general store and gas station stocks caps and gloves, batteries, tools, flashlights, candles and a selection of household items such as light bulbs and shoe strings, Driver said.

It’s also the only place in Durkee where people can come to send a fax or make copies on a copy machine, he said.

“I live in Durkee down by the post office,” Driver said. “This is the job for the household. I have the only income. I am worried about whether I will have a job come winter.”

 “If they shut Ash Grove down, we are going to die off to almost nothing,” Driver said. “The guys from Ash Grove come in here after their shift is over around 4 o’clock every day and buy gas or snacks and something to drink.”

“I could guarantee we’d have at least one big rush a day,” he said.

“They’ve already had some layoffs around mid-October and business has definitely dropped off. My boss called and said we may have to cut back,” said Driver.

The Nyssa Co-op employs four people, including Driver, to keep the gas station and general store open from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

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“I live day-to-day because I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Driver said.

Without the Ash Grove workers, Driver said the co-op/general store would rely on visits from local residents and the occasional visit from highway and railroad crews, truckers or tourists who stop because they’re running low on gas, are curious about what’s in Durkee, or stop to check out the Hungry Redneck Cafe.   

Despite the economic doldrums, Lettunich said he endured much worse times during his youth in communist Yugoslavia, and when he immigrated to the United States at age 18 under political asylum from Yugoslavia in 1961 during the height of the Cold War.

He worked as a cook in the area of Yugoslavia that restored its historic name of Croatia after the breakup of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Lettunich said that when he arrived in America he spoke no English, and started out doing farm work in California, then working as a bus boy and waiter as he learned English.

His cooking talents were eventually recognized and his culinary career advanced as he was hired as a chef in swanky restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Eventually though he tired of the fancy cooking in restaurants that charged $70 to $80 for the same amount of food that diners could get at McDonald’s for a few bucks.

Now at age 68, he’s enjoying sharing his culinary skills with the friendly ranchers, cement plant workers and truckers who frequent the Hungry Redneck. He makes sure the portions are big enough to satisfy hearty appetites, including his 16-ounce T-bone or rib steaks for $15.95 with all the trimmings, including homemade soup.

“All our soups are made from scratch,” Lettunich said, adding that he even makes the noodles in his chicken noodle soup from scratch, as well as the pasta in his fettuccini dishes.

All the pies are also made from scratch at the Hungry Redneck, he said.

While he enjoys cooking and visiting with customers, Lettunich said the extra hours he’s been putting in since he laid off a cook and a waitress are wearing on him.

When gas prices shot up to above $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008, Lettunich said several of his suppliers stopped making deliveries, and they haven’t restored service to Durkee.

As a result, picking up restaurant supplies in Boise and Homedale, Idaho, and in Ontario has become a weekly routine on Wednesday, which is officially his day off.

Although steaks and prime rib are popular items, the Hungry Redneck is probably best known for its big burgers like the Redneck, which includes two quarter-pound beef patties, two slices of cheese (American and Swiss), two slices of ham and thick sliced bacon, topped with sauteed onions and mushrooms.

“We don’t use pre-pressed patties,” Lettunich said. “We measure out 4 ounces of lean ground beef for each patty, and we make the patties by hand, the old-fashioned way.”

He also serves a variety of seafood dishes, from shrimp and oysters to a spicy Cajun catfish.

During better times, Lettunich said he’d typically have five to seven tables filled, and a few customers at the counter, during the lunch or dinner hours.

But not lately.

On Tuesday, he served just seven customers, four between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., including two truckers and two women from the Durkee quilt club. Between 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. his only two customers were Charles Kester, who works days at his 40-acre ranch and nights at Ash Grove, and Kester’s 12-year-old son, Chad.

“Charles is one of my best customers,” Lettunich said. “He brings his son in here almost every day after school for a hamburger and French fries.”

“This is the only restaurant for 30 miles. If he closes, where are we going to go?” said Charles Kester.

Kester, 63, grew up on a family ranch outside Durkee, where his father,  H.W. Kester, worked at the old Portland Cement Co. plant at Lime for 25 years. Now Charles said he’s put in 33 years at the newer Durkee plant and is hoping to hold on long enough to retire in two years when he turns 65.

“I’ve done a little bit of everything, from laborer to oiler,” Kester said. “Now I mostly operate a loader or crusher.”

Kester said he and other Ash Grove workers worry that the layoffs, which plant manager Terry Kerby said could end as soon as mid-February, will become permanent if the national economy doesn’t revive and generate more demand for cement.

Kester said he’s also concerned that the plant could be forced to close if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t modify a proposed new rule that would set mercury emission limits lower than what the Durkee plant can attain even after spending $20 million to install filters.

The Durkee plant is the nation’s largest emitter of airborne mercury.

“I think the EPA is kind of turning against us. For some reason they aren’t helping us at all,” Kester said.

Because of his seniority, Kester said he won’t be laid off on Dec. 14, but he could be laid off after that big wave of 68 layoffs, possibly as early as Dec. 17.

“I’ve been there the longest of anybody, but I ain’t the oldest,” Kester said.

But whether he’s working at Ash Grove or not, he doesn’t want to see the last two businesses in Durkee close because of the hardship that would create for the town’s 167 residents and area farmers and ranchers, many of whom would remain in the area whether Ash Grove closes down or not. 

“I’ll hold out as long as I can, but it’s pretty bad. If it doesn’t get better soon, I’ll have to look at other options,” said Lettunich.

 To help make ends meet, Lettunich sells T-shirts, caps, refrigerator magnets, bumper stickers and other novelties with the Redneck image and colorful redneck sayings.

“If I have to shut down the cafe, I could always go gold mining,” Lettunich said.

He said he’s a partner in a gold mine, and with gold prices approaching $1,200 an ounce it wouldn’t take much of a gold strike to make more than he’s earning at the Hungry Redneck.