STARBUCK — Carol Wildman has grown tired of home-cooking, and she’s not really much of a foodie either.
Also, she and her husband just opened a restaurant in Starbuck, a small town that, for years, has gone without any sort of eating establishment or casual place to gather.
“There’s a degree of stupidity,” she said, seated, during a quiet spell at a table in Rebecca’s Lodge one morning recently. And “a degree of determination. Once you jump in the water, you better keep swimming.”
The restaurant opened for business April 1, serving standard American classics — pancakes and bacon and burgers and BLTs, (and, most recently, beer on tap) — to a small but growing customer base.
For Wildman, the restaurant is about more than just food. It’s about commitment and challenge, legacy and community in a rural American town.
Carol and her husband, Floyd, bought the old, brick, onetime-pharmacy building in dilapidated condition on Main and Baxter streets in 1987, when, having become empty-nesters, they moved back to Carol’s hometown Starbuck from Spokane.
They had always wanted to fix the place up. One winter, a few years ago, Carol said they came to a decision: “Let’s just do it. We’re not getting any younger.”
Of all the options on the table, she said “the least unreasonable thing we could figure out to do would be to make a restaurant.”
Rebecka to Rebecca
This little town near the Snake River has had restaurants before. A bar operated for a few years; before that was Huwe’s Cafe.
Decades ago, Candice Harrison operated CJ’s Cafe, a precursor to Huwe’s. She fell into the operation through family circumstance and found operating a full-scale restaurant to be rewarding but extremely hard work. Starbuck’s population hovers around 130, and it took significant time, Harrison said, to build a loyal base of customers among locals and nearby workers and passers-by.
When she and other locals heard of the Wildmans’ plans, “we wondered if they knew what they were getting into.” Many, she said, found it “unbelievable that they were both retired and would want to do such an endeavor.”
For some, opening a restaurant is a lifelong goal. But more often than not, without preparation, experience, swagger and a lot of luck, it can turn into a financial sinkhole.
Yet Carol said she and Floyd had no grand romantic visions and never expected to make any money on the project.
Carol served as clerk-treasurer for the town for a period and has chaired the School Board for years. She feels the Starbuck community is her “family.” And she determined that family had a problem — no public gathering place and no restaurant — and she that she wanted to address it.
“It’s just like if you go clean up a park or go do something other thing because you feel it would be for the betterment of the community,” she said. “That’s what we were doing.”
They began by gutting the building.
The Oddfellows fraternity had bought the pharmacy — among the last brick structures remaining from a bygone architectural era — in the 1930s and used it briefly for meetings before it was taken over by Rebeckas, the secret society’s female counterpart, which had numerous local members, said Carol.
The Wildmans purchased it from the Rebeckas for $4,000 — roughly the value of the bricks alone — and it served as a fine storage shed for Floyd’s contracting work.
The organizations that used the building had converted it to their own predilections, covering windows, restructuring the facade. Carol, a lover of history, said she and Floyd wanted to restore the building back to its form as a pharmacy.
She pointed to the upper balcony, where she speculates the original family dwelt (now it is home to the restaurant office and miscellaneous paraphernalia; she hopes to eventually turn it into a miniature museum and a shop for local crafts).
Floyd focused on structure and broad form, his work facilitated by his contacts in the contracting business; Carol attuned herself to the finish. She said that while she and her husband don’t always have identical aesthetic sensibilities — he likes his spaces straight, white, she said — they ultimately form a complementary duo.
The vision, culinarily and aesthetically, was not complicated, but it was intentional. Something simple, nothing too highbrow. But they “wanted it to be a place that Starbuck people could be proud of.”
Reservations and unease came early, with red tape, paperwork.
“Oh my gosh,” said Carol, recalling the assorted bureaucratic minutiae. “I couldn’t imagine how a little ‘ma-and-pa’ could open nowadays.”
After a number of false starts, Carol and Floyd thought, “This is crazy, we’re never going to have every little thing perfect,” and they trained their eyes on the April 1 opener.
The hours started out overambitious — six days a week — before they dialed it back to Tuesday through Saturday. Carol works the kitchen in advance of a 5:30 a.m. opening (on weekdays); Floyd does repairs, maintenance, shopping; they roped Floyd’s brother, Steve Wildman, and sister-in-law, Brenda Wildman, in to work and cover the floor.
“Sometimes it’s crazy busy, and sometimes it’s crazy slow,” said Carol.
She said “some things are difficult to plan for. There’s no rhyme or reason to what people are going to want to eat today.”
On a recent midmorning, it was just Carol and Brenda and a local duo that came in briefly for ice cream. As the morning went on, an apparent regular entered and took his seat, ordering the usual French toast, and Brenda whipped up the coffee while Carol retreated into the kitchen.
Carol said that with time, she began to get the hang of restaurant-style cooking. The new challenges, of timing multiple orders, taming industrial-scale kitchen appliances, reinvigorated her inclinations for cooking, which, once a delightful and rewarding craft, had become something of a chore for her.
“I enjoy it now,” she said. “I enjoy the challenge of trying to get all those people when we have a huge crowd, getting their lunches on the table — the whole process.”
Sometimes she returns to the down-home style. Frustrated with the idiosyncrasies of the griddle — It drooped! The eggs kept coming off! — she brought from home an electric frying pan on which, this recent morning, she flipped the French toast.
“We just do the best we can with our limited skills.”
The long game
Carol said she is not the only one who doubted, at times, whether the endeavor would work out. She’s been involved in the community in various capacities and projects for which she’d been initially out of her element.
She’s “used to the naysayers.”
She recalled Starbuck’s 1999 effort to install a sewer to replace the failing septic system (the U-B at the time referred to her as the “mover-and-shaker” behind the project). She’d been struck by how the town came together, in some cases individuals temporarily putting aside personal arguments in deference to the larger vision.
“After it, you look back,” she said, “and you realize you didn’t know what the hell you were doing.”
But “I’m a pretty optimistic person,” she said. “I’ve always figured, there’s nothing you can’t do if you want to do it hard enough, and it’s pretty much the way I’ve lived my life.”
The long-term prospects for Rebecca’s Lodge are uncertain.
“I don’t want to do this until they bury me,” Carol said. But for now, the meals cook and the grill fires and crises are averted, and she said there is a certain satisfaction in that.
“It was just something that we wanted to do for ourselves,” she said. “We’re the kind of people that aren’t going to spend a whole ton of money traveling the world or buying big fancy house. That’s not who we are. We just want to accomplish something.”
A few weeks after the opening of the restaurant, Carol said they received a card and, eventually, a palm tree — she loves landscaping and plants — for the restaurant’s interior.
The card said “Thank You” and was full of individualized notes. It was signed, she said, by the majority of the townspeople.
Carol, seated back at the table, looked up. “That meant a lot.”