The Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill is still coming to Brookings, but it’s obviously not going to make its scheduled August opening. Water problems on the property have delayed construction, but with a mid-August start the 32nd Avenue steakhouse should be open for business by the holidays. Photo by Ken Curley/Register
• ‘Surprises’ push opening to December
BROOKINGS – Whiskey Creek is coming to Brookings.
“It’s been delayed, but we are coming,” says Whiskey Creek chief Jim Gardner.
The new steakhouse won’t be opening in August, as originally announced. Or even September or October.
But make plans to enjoy the new Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill in December, says Gardner, who is president and CEO of the Midwest chain of restaurants.
Gardner was in Brookings on business this week, in part to meet with community leaders to discuss what’s been going on with the much-anticipated steakhouse and explain just what the holdup has been.
In a word, it’s water.
“It was a real surprise to us,” Gardner said.
“We had soil issues, involving a high water table.”
To correct that problem – and before the company can build on its site just east of the Interstate 29-U.S. Highway 14 intersection – contractors will have to remove a layer of topsoil and replace it with a subsoil liner, a type of filler material that’s not even available in South Dakota.
Whiskey Creek had the property sampled by Geotek Engineering and Testing Services out of Sioux Falls, which helped company officials determine a way to correct the problem.
Some residents had expressed concern that there might be soil contamination from the nearby Department of Transportation shop area, but that wasn’t the case.
No contamination at all, Gardner says. Now, water level and drainage issues have been resolved and any concerns about wetlands on the property have been settled as well, and Whiskey Creek is ready to move into high gear.
Work begins in August
Site work and construction will begin in mid-August, the restaurateur said, and doors will open sometime in December.
“Barring any weather-related disasters, that’s now the plan,” Gardner said Wednesday.
That’s what’s accounted for the delay. But an even bigger surprise for Gardner & Co. was the “much higher than anticipated construction costs.”
Because of the economy, construction prices have been low in most of the country, but not so here.
“Colorado and Nebraska are not booming,” Gardner said, noting other company locations, “but judging from the prices we got, South Dakota must be.
“The mechanical and electrical and plumbing bids we got were astronomically high – higher than any the corporation has seen in recent years. But I’m here in town to assure everyone, that doesn’t change a thing. We haven’t changed our plans at all, except to move them forward a few months.”
The restaurant planned for Brookings will seat approximately 190 inside and will offer outdoor patio seating for 36 patrons.
The operation will have a staff of about 125. “With the building, the property and our startup costs, we’ll spend close to $2 million,” Gardner says. “This is a big investment for us.”
The restaurant, about 5,000 square feet, will feature the company's contemporary cowboy/western theme.
Whiskey Creek will have whiskey – a full bar, in fact – but the corporation emphasizes that it is a restaurant that happens to serve alcohol, not a bar that happens to serve food.
"This is a family restaurant, first and foremost," said Gardner.
Although most diners refer to Whiskey Creek as a steakhouse, the restaurant's menu is diverse and features steaks, barbecue, pasta, sandwiches, seafood, burgers and appetizers.
“We’ve got the best baby back barbecue ribs you’ve ever had in your life,” Gardner says. “We cook them over oak and ash on our wood fire grill – and our grilled vegetables with our own special seasonings … it’s unlike anything you’ve ever had around here. You can smell it from a mile away.”
Some staff on board
The company has already moved the general manager of the new restaurant, Andy Lynch, to Brookings, along with his family. But he’s now working at the company’s Nebraska restaurants until the local restaurant is ready to open. Another of the managers will come from within the chain, and a Brookings-hired trainee is already at work in the corporate program.
Gardner says the December opening will put some stress on staff training, “but it’s an excellent team, and we’ll handle it.”
Gardner admits that the national economic downturn has slowed things for Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grills.
“I have a pizza restaurant as well as steakhouses,” he said, “And I can tell you more people have been eating pizza than steak. You can share a pizza with four people, but you can’t do that with a filet mignon.”
He’s particularly concerned with the price and value of the Whiskey Creek menu and says he wants it to be affordable for average, hard-working American families.
With that philosophy, until this spring, Gardner says the company hadn’t raised prices on its steaks in three years: “We’ve tried to keep prices reasonable.”
That loyalty to middle-income customers goes back to his own start. “I was absolutely broke,” Gardner recalls. “I was driving a 1971 AMC Gremlin and living in a trailer park in York, Neb.”
Starting as an hourly worker in a family restaurant, he became a restaurant franchisee by age 19. He discovered he had a knack for restaurant turnarounds and ultimately became a territorial owner of Country Kitchen restaurants. He sold his interest in Country Kitchen and eventually took over the ownership of Wild West Inc., the parent company of Whiskey Creek.
Gardner and Whiskey Creek retrenched when the recession took hold nationally, but the Colorado-based businessman says things are beginning to return to normal. As proof of that, he’s heading to Wisconsin this week where he’s laying the groundwork for another Whiskey Creek restaurant. Sales at the only other Whiskey Creek in South Dakota, in Mitchell, have been excellent.
“I want to thank the people of Brookings for their patience with us, and I apologize that we missed the mark here,” Gardner said.
“But Whiskey Creek is coming to Brookings, that’s for sure. And I think you’ll all agree it’s worth the wait.”
Contact Ken Curley at kcurley@-brookingsregister.com.