The Ranchman’s Cafe in Ponder has been serving chicken fried steak since 1948. The building has been around since 1903. But for 662 days it has been closed, first because of COVID-19 and then because of construction delays.
Owner Dave Ross is confident his Ponder steakhouse will reopen. He does not go to leave it closes, he said. But tell that to the impatient customers who contact you every week wondering how much longer the wait will last.
“As the manager of a cultural heritage restaurant, my mission is survival,” he says.
Survival means finishing a construction project in the kitchen that will make the restaurant more efficient, then hoping that date coincides with fewer COVID-19 cases, so he can bring customers back inside. Ross fully owns the building, so he incurs no costs while the restaurant is closed.
Ranchman’s is an isolated location about 35 miles north of downtown Fort Worth and 12 miles west of Denton Square. For decades, millionaires and everyday people alike have shopped around for steaks topped with melted butter, served with fries and fluffy sourdough rolls. Few people could resist pies.
Ranchman’s is one of the oldest restaurants in North Texas. It’s still holding up during the pandemic, unlike other long-running establishments, like Highland Park Cafeteria (closed after 95) and Mac’s Bar-B-Que (66).
Though Ranchman’s is Hidden, It’s Never Been a Secret: Meatloaf filmed a video clip there and Chef Bobby Flay saved a food web Pin up. Cindy Crawford had dinner with friends on a rainy Wednesday night a few decades ago. And in the late 60s, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway repeatedly stopped during film shoots to Bonnie and Clyde in which they robbed the nearby bank.
Ross knows travelers and regulars want to return to the restaurant that was written about in the guidebooks to have the best chicken fried steak in the state. Carrollton resident Ken Ehrsam says he regularly takes strangers to Ranchman’s for a true Texas experience.
“It’s a fun afternoon walk. It’s about an hour from Carrollton and you end up in a country town,” he says.
Ross says he’s also tired of being shut down. But “satisfying the short-term craving for chicken fried steak at the expense of closing a business that’s been open since 1948 is too high a cost,” he says.
The long wait for the steak
Ross closed the restaurant in mid-March 2020, when municipalities forced restaurants to close their dining rooms due to the coronavirus pandemic. Customers haven’t set foot at Ranchman since then, although they may have eaten its food during a brief stint in the summer of 2020, when Ross learned the hard way that his out-of-town restaurant couldn’t gracefully pivot to takeout.
“It was an expensive business,” Ross says. He lost $40,000 in one month by paying for products that customers didn’t buy, then paying workers who were waiting for orders.
Takeout and delivery often aren’t lucrative enough to keep a restaurant afloat anyway, unless you’re selling pizza. It’s a reality that dozens of restaurateurs have been shouting about since the start of 2020. Ranchman’s serves up large platters of roast pork and fried chicken in a family-friendly setting. It doesn’t keep its looks when a generous spread is packed and shipped in plastic bags.
“Chicken fried steak doesn’t fit in styrofoam, and neither do french fries. The burgers crumble. The steaks are overcooked,” says Ross.
“Customers just wanted to come in and sit down.” But Ross wouldn’t.
The 117-year-old building also needed work. So in December 2020, Ross gutted the kitchen and planned to build a 460 square foot addition for a walk-in freezer, dishwasher, and storage space. Crews had to remove asbestos, which was added during a building renovation in the 1960s.
Ross hoped construction would take several months, but now expects the dining hall to be closed for more than two years.
“That is, if natural disasters don’t deplete the supply of concrete, wood and labour,” he says.
A woman named Pete founded Ranchman’s in 1948.
Her name is Grace “Pete” Jackson, but she hated the name Grace, so she gave herself a new name, Ross says. She opened Ranchman’s for the unromantic reason that there was no place to eat in Ponder.
Soon she saw “millionaires, bankers, railroad workers and rodeo cowboys rub shoulders with the folks of the house to sample Pete’s 8- to 24-ounce sirloins and T-bones and rave about his pies. home”. The news written in 1985.
Ross met her as a student in the early 70s, when he stopped for tea and pie halfway through his daily 20-mile bike ride.
Ross eventually found a job there as a cook, butcher and baker in 1974. He ended up at Ranchman’s in 1978, when Pete needed help adding some back room, and again in 1985 for another concert. Eventually, Ross bought the restaurant from its matriarch in 1992.
Pete died in 1998, 50 years after opening the restaurant.
It is now three quarters of a century old, quiet but not completely closed. What’s a few more months of waiting, for a place that’s seen so much?
Ross promises the new Ranchman’s won’t lose “its cozy country charm.” He can’t wait to open when the world is different. And when is it?
Summer 2022, he says.
Most likely. Perhaps. Who knows.
We will wait.
Ranchman’s is at 110 W. Bailey St, Ponder. It remains temporarily closed until construction is complete.
Correction, January 10 at 5:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect description of coffee age.