Wednesday, February 20, 2013
Who can get their head — let alone mouth — around a 72-ounce steak without some kind of visual?
Marilyn Ahlgren Mckinney remembers that day at The Oasis sometime around 1959, when her then-husband Gary went for the challenge and ate the whole steak and trimmings. As a prize, the food was free.
“Wish I had a picture they took of him finishing that big meal.”
The roadhouse restaurant known for serving steak and potatoes at the state line since the days of the horse and buggy closed this week after nearly 80 years. The poor economy, the growing costs of operating, the increased competition in the marketplace were all behind the decision, owner David Beale said Tuesday.
Hard enough is the loss of yet another business in the Valley, especially with 11 employees looking for work. But this business — with roots well planted long before many of its contemporary customers were ever born — was an old friend, too. The backdrop for so many memories in so many lifetimes, as evidenced by the community response.
Aaron Rebhahn, a line cook at The Oasis from 1991 to 1998: “I will never forget the day the Oasis purchased the jukebox that stood loud and proud in the front bar — Its debut was on a Friday night and back then a Friday night meant a packed house and at least 2-3 people deep for happy hour in the front bar as regular customers and the owner (the late Jack Koch )and one very talented bartender (the late Kathy Kelly) in the bar from p.m. to closing time.”
As the night came to an end, the employees and customers shared a drink. Someone popped some change in the jukebox and Garth Brooks belted “Friends in Low Places.”
“We all stood up with drinks in the air and sang along with Garth. We proceeded to do that every Friday and Saturday night for while. That was The Oasis. That’s who we were one big family!”
Since 1934 The Oasis has been serving it up family-style. Located off Stateline Road, it’s just a matter of feet south of the Walla Walla County line in Oregon. Built on dirt. Trolley tracks were said to once run past the front door.
The business was making everything from dressing to soup stock from scratch long before Walla Walla was on the map for its dining scene and locavore movement. Sunday’s tradition of chicken and dumplings was a beloved favorite.
The lines of customers were unbelievable for a 14-year-old Cheryl York, who was granted a work permit to start up her first job at The Oasis.
“They were so stinkin’ busy. I can remember standing in the kitchen on a Friday or Saturday night, thinking ‘Oh, my gosh, am I ever going to get out of this place.’ People were wrapped around the building standing in line.”
If you know anything about The Oasis, you probably now the name Pat Koch, who ran it with her late husband, Jack, for 18 years. You also likely know the names Ed and Ruby Selby who had it for what seemed like eons before that.
Ed Selby was famed for judging the quality on a bottle of moonshine by banging it on a counter and counting the beads that came through the whisky. He was also known for dropping by a customer’s table with pair of dice. “Double or nothing,” he’d offer. If the dice rolled in favor of the customer, they’d get the meal free. If not, they’d pay double.
Noel Cortez has lived in the house across the street from The Oasis. Since 1986, the place was more than a business.
“It’s been such an great establishment in our Valley and it’s such a shock that it no longer will be open. Not only was it a great restaurant, but they were great neighbors. I hope someone buys it and brings it back because it was truly an iconic restaurant for anyone that has grown up in the area.”
The place was steeped in tradition. Girls nights out, reunions, anniversaries, poker nights. After harvest, farmers and workers would convene there. Bea Rios’ brother, Roy, was one of them. He worked for asparagus farmer Harry Phillips for years.
“Roy would go to Texas (with) Mr. Phillips to contract asparagus cutters. When asparagus season was over, The Oasis was the place to gather before the workers returned home to Texas or other parts for work. My family celebrated family reunions and birthdays here also. I now live in the Tri-Cities, but whenever I come to visit I try and drop in. Will miss it.”
It’s no surprise to Beale that customers feel a sense of ownership. There was something special about it from the moment he stepped foot inside.
Beale bought the business in 2005 with partner Lynn Ausejo. After finding a listing for the restaurant online, he flew up to Portland from California and drove to the restaurant in the midst of a nasty January storm. It took him two hours to go four miles. After a 9 a.m. landing in Portland, he pulled up to The Oasis at 6:30 that night to see the place with his own eyes.
“I could almost smell dairy when I first walked in. I’ll never forget that. I think it’s still in my nostrils,” he said.
After a return trip in late February the ownership change was complete April 1, 2005.
Beale spent his first months living at the Washington Apartments with just an air mattress and a computer desk used as a dining room table. Employees at The Oasis gave him a television set and a pillow, thus beginning the familial relationship for which the staff was known.
Beale was no stranger to food service and hospitality. His work history goes back to his days in his native England aboard cruise ships. He came to the U.S. in 1982, living on the East Coast before moving to Santa Barbara. He managed private clubs from 1983 to 2004, when he wanted to invest in his very own.
The place never lost a hint of its quality, he said marveling at opportunity to have freshness. “April through November — to have a farmer walk in here in his muddy boots and put his produce on my counter and have it still be warm (from the day’s sun). Unbelievable.”
But he noticed a drop in business when Applebee’s opened up the road in Walla Walla. More and more restaurants continued to start up. The economy went into a spiral that didn’t hit the Valley as quickly as the rest of the country, but has not begun to show signs of recovery yet in his dining room.
Signs of trouble surfaced last month when rumors of the closure started to spread. Pat Koch returned to help manage. But without more people in the dining room, the closure was inevitable, Beale said.
The combined 50 years of service among the almost one dozen employees helped. He marvels at their generosity and attributes the longevity to them.
The business could sell if a buyer comes forward. Beale didn’t specify an asking price. The buildings will go back to the ownership of Koch if someone else doesn’t come forward. “It’s always had the name. It could be a great deal for the right person.”
Beale’s not sure what’s next for him. The reality of the closure hasn’t entirely sunk in. “I’ll miss the controlled chaos. The clanking of the plates, the background, the dinner music. The people,” he said.
“I lived the dream. I got to live the dream for eight years. No regrets, whatsoever.”