Steaking a claim

Ore House Restaurant yields treasured lifestyle for 40 years

Former Ore House employees gather for a reunion. Enlarge photo

Former Ore House employees gather for a reunion.

Ore House Restaurant owners Bill “Beatle” Abshagen and his late partner Jim Arias choose the best.

They picked the best town, and they selected the best food. Their professional and personal decisions have been guided by one word – quality.

“People don’t come here to make money,” said Abshagen. “Our personal mission has been to make enough to live in this beautiful place and develop long-term relationships. We were fortunate to come here. It’s been a great place to raise our families. You can work at night, ski, hunt and fish all day.”

Established in 1972, Ore House is celebrating 40 years in its original location in downtown Durango. The restaurant features top-quality steak, seafood and spirits in an Old West atmosphere at 147 East College Drive.

The idea for the restaurant was modeled after the Ore House in Vail, owned by Abshagen’s good friend John Beaupre. Jim Arias and Beatle met in Vail in 1970. “I was more the business end, he was more the construction end,” said Abshagen. They didn’t always agree. “Partnerships are very difficult... But I’ll miss his loyalty, honesty and integrity. Jim was a dedicated family man and a fun-loving guy.”

Abshagen said he fell in love with Colorado, and wanted to find quality of life with a restaurant of his own. The partners chose Durango for its natural beauty and outdoor pursuits, although 40 years ago Durango was “a different place: kind of dirty, run-down, not a lot of trees.” Abshagen said he could have chosen a town with a bigger population and made more money, because there was a need all over the country for a quality steakhouse. But slightly scruffy Durango called to him. He rightly predicted that the train and proximity to Mesa Verde would help Durango grow over the years.

Abshagen and Arias found the location, formerly a Chrysler dealership and later the restaurant El Sombrero. “It wasn’t a good part of town,” said Sharon Abshagen. Beatle and Arias “signed their lives away” for $125 a month in rent. There was a lot of construction at first during four months of remodeling, because the building was essentially a shell. They also had to collect signatures to get a liquor license approved.

“Once we got past political wrangling, the response was instantaneous,” said Abshagen. “There weren’t too many restaurants here, as opposed to today.”

In thinking about the secrets of longevity and the restaurant’s 40th anniversary, Abshagen is intrigued by the idea of not just surviving, but thriving. In the cool, dim restaurant on June 11, he and Sharon, plus Ore House Executive Chef/General Manager Ryan Lowe sit down to ponder the underpinnings of success. Beatle pulls out a yellow notebook with pages of notes, with scribbles and highlights. Here are his five key points:

1. Have good timing and good luck. The Abshagens say buying the building before Durango became popular was key to their success, but they had to weather slow years in the early days.

“You could roll a bowling ball down Main Avenue in January, it was so empty,” he recalls. Today, restaurant owners who lease in a highly competitive market are “at the mercy” of landlords who continually raise the rent.

Meeting and marrying Sharon in Durango would also fall into the luck category. “She has listened to my song and dance all these years; and did the bookkeeping. She is a big part of our success,” he said.

2. Create a good business model and find your niche. From the beginning, Ore House was intended to be “special-occasion” dining – birthdays, proposals, anniversaries, promotions. “Customers want good food, but they really want an experience,” said Abshagen. “Anyone can go to McDonald’s and fill their belly on the cheap. People want entertainment, and special food for special occasions.”

The atmosphere, which Abshagen called “the essence and history of Southwest Colorado” adds to the experience. The walls of the restaurant are packed with Western memorabilia and elaborate murals. The food reflects the spirit of the West, too. Abshagen said that in the past restaurants used to include multiple cuisines; but today, you see restaurants specializing in one thing. For Ore House, the anchor of the menu has always been a quality steak. The menu today is still focused around this ideal, serving hand-cut, USDA-certified prime and choice steaks; while also offering sustainable wild-caught seafood; free range poultry; homemade ice cream, desserts and sorbets; seasonal, organic, local produce; an extensive wine cellar, and a full bar

3. Be consistent and focus on what you do best. Ore House customers tend to come back year after year to celebrate big occasions. Abshagen says people will go to places where they’ve had positive experiences. “It breeds loyalty within a customer base. There’s a sense of security when there are no surprises. People like consistency, familiarity and something that hasn’t changed.” The menu doesn’t change with the latest culinary whims. Customers can find traditional favorites every time they come.

Chef Lowe says that during the peak of the recession, a lot of local restaurants decided to offer inexpensive menu items. “We decided to increase the quality of the food we serve, while focusing on utilizing regional ingredients.” Abshagen adds: “We’re not in the bargain business. We’re expensive, and we won’t compromise our brand by utilizing lower quality products.”

4. Adapt, and watch the bottom line. Controlling inventory and carefully handling finances is imperative, according to Abshagen. “Technology has been a godsend for restaurant operators. Ryan is on the computer constantly, checking the market prices of food.” Attention to detail pays off. He says Ore House business is up 20 percent this year. “I’m proud of that,” he said. “It tells us that we’re doing something right.”

5. Hire and maintain a great staff. “The staff always comes first,” said Lowe. “If they’re not happy, why would they want to make sure our customers are happy? The staff has a good quality of life here. They are paid well, but they work their butts off for it.”

Lowe said there’s a “laundry list” of former employees – many of whom come in to eat with their children and grandchildren – who went on to start their own successful businesses in Durango.

In addition to treating staff well, the Ore House vision extends to treating the community well. Lowe said the restaurant participates in “every way, shape and form possible: Everything from donating thousands of dollars in gift certificates every year, to sponsoring many community-based events, to being dedicated chamber members.”

The future of the Ore House is with those who are learning new culinary skills, and keeping up with the technology, according to Abshagen. The new generation will take it over, because he wants to spend more time fishing, hunting, and riding his bike.

“But it will still have your guidance and vision,” Lowe says to Abshagen. “This place is very much a part of you.”

Bill “Beatle” Abshagen says a major perk of his job is “free steak and whiskey.” Enlarge photo

Bill “Beatle” Abshagen says a major perk of his job is “free steak and whiskey.”