If they'd known the six-table restaurant they opened on a shoestring was going to outlast the company that printed its wallpaper, Charlene and Vernon Rollins would have bought more.
Twenty years later, the print of placid dairy cows is hidden behind a new vestibule of hand-carved fir, wrought iron and hammered copper. Gone is the blinking arrow and shack-like exterior, trademarks of New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro for its first 17 years. A clean stucco facade and lettering clearly visible from Talent's South Pacific Highway now marks the spot that confounded so many first-time customers.
"The original mystique was so different from what we are now," says Charlene Rollins.
Like the restaurant's namesake — the Rollinses' 22-year-old son — New Sammy's has come of age.
"It's not just a business for us," says Charlene Rollins, 61. "It's everything for us."
The business itself was born of necessity after the Rollinses in 1988 moved to Ashland to be with Charlene's mother, diagnosed with terminal cancer. Although the couple had operated their own restaurant — the New Boonville Hotel, in California's Anderson Valley — to much acclaim, their reputation as gourmets hadn't traveled as far as Ashland.
"Nobody would hire us — we were old," says Vernon Rollins, now 64.
In truth, the couple had fled from their earlier venture in Boonville. Overwhelmed by the business' popularity and investors' expectations, they packed a KitchenAid mixer and six jars of raspberry preserves and slipped out of town as customers waited outside the restaurant. The Rollinses left it and all their other possessions behind.
"It was so cathartic — it felt so good," Vernon says. "People don't understand how you can walk away from all that."
They not only walked away, they never looked back, despite interviews with disgruntled employees and investors that surfaced in a number of articles over the years. Charlene says she's surprised anyone still cares about what happened in Boonville, although New Sammy's customers occasionally comment that the last time they tasted food like hers was at the hotel, beloved by Bay Area foodies.
"To us, it's just history," she says.
The next chapter in Southern Oregon would bring the Rollinses more admiration and nationwide press, only on their own terms and a more manageable scale.
With no investors this time, the couple couldn't even afford monthly rental fees for the building that would become New Sammy's. So they struck a deal with the owner to remodel the dilapidated structure themselves in exchange for lower rent, Vernon says. After about six months of labor and planning, New Sammy's opened on June 1, 1989. The bistro was christened for Sammy, then 2, who hoped cowboys would come to dine.
"We're trying to be low-key and casual," Vernon says.
The restaurant was so low-key at first that only devoted fans from the couple's Boonville days found them, making New Sammy's a stop on tourist itineraries, along with Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The Rollinses say they knew little of the festival's far-reaching reputation when they opened New Sammy's but soon realized that OSF was luring most of their customers to the area.
"Tourists discovered them and loved them before locals did," recalls Annie Hoy, longtime customer and outreach manager of Ashland Food Co-op.
"They were just that far outside of Ashland that it was kind of like a trip to go see them."
When trips to OSF declined with the economy over the past year, so did traffic at New Sammy's. The Rollinses estimate that business was down by 35 percent at one point, and they're still playing catch-up from last winter.
"It was just an immediate drop," Charlene says.
They count themselves lucky, however, that the new façade and dining room were finished, their mortgage almost paid off and, in an economic climate that foundered not a few restaurants, New Sammy's retained all 14 of its full-time employees. With the addition almost doubling the restaurant's seating capacity, the Rollinses also had room to promote discounts and special menus to draw in more customers, complementing the lunch service they started in September 2007. Tourists may not be coming in past numbers. Nor are diners compelled to make reservations weeks or months in advance. But the response from locals — so slow to respond two decades ago — has been overwhelming, Vernon says.
"Our local clientele is so loyal."
Corresponding with local popularity is increased awareness of the "locavore" movement. Cooking and eating locally grown and produced foods at the height of seasonal freshness has characterized New Sammy's cuisine from the start, but it became a mainstream concept only within the past few years. More local, small farms and increased availability of artisan food products have brought the biggest change to her kitchen, Charlene says.
"It's just such a significant thing for this valley," she says.
While New Sammy's own on-site, organic garden and fruit trees provide between 20 and 35 percent of its produce during the growing season, Charlene shops at local farmers markets and orders direct from growers.
"I am just so filled with gratitude and admiration for what they do."
Unlike many restaurants championing local food, however, New Sammy's menu doesn't list many purveyors or sources of its ingredients. Because local is such a central theme at her restaurant, its execution in every dish simply wouldn't be readable, Charlene says. Her menu changes daily, depending on what's freshest, even if the only change is to highlight a single, exquisite ingredient, like fava beans or figs.
"We expect people to come here and know that's what it is."
More evident in print is New Sammy's commitment to organic food, and not just meat and produce. Since the restaurant opened, its dairy products, eggs, flour, sugar, salt, coffee — 99.8 percent of items used — have been organic, Charlene says. Rare exceptions are made for spices that simply aren't available in a certified-organic form.
All of that adds cost, of course. The Rollinses acknowledge that New Sammy's prices, usually around $50 for the special, three-course dinner menu, is at the upper end of what diners want to pay in the Rogue Valley. Yet the consensus of customers and food-industry experts is that wine prices are more than fair, usually between $20 and $40 per bottle.
Named in the October 2006 issue of Food & Wine magazine as one of the top 50 wine experiences in the country, New Sammy's collection of 3,000 labels isn't merely commendable. It's virtually unheard of in regions like the Rogue Valley.
"I think they put restaurant wine on the map for Southern Oregon," says Lorn Razzano, owner of Ashland Wine Cellar, which celebrates its 30th anniversary next year.
"They have a wine for everyone," Razzano says. "That's really hard to do."
Visiting every table for a wine "consultation," Vernon is unfailingly friendly and down-to-earth. If a customer doesn't know the difference between a "dry" or "off-dry" white wine, rather than defining each term, Vernon simply suggests the Vouvray.
"We're not pretentious about wine.
"My knowledge is hardly encyclopedic," he says, adding that he frequently deals with customers who know more than he does. "There is an incredible amount of knowledge in Medford."
However, as the Rogue Valley's wine industry boomed over the past decade, New Sammy's retained its preference for the wines of Europe, where Vernon says he developed his palate. Installing a bar to display and serve so many bottles was a major impetus for the restaurant's expansion, but Vernon has since scaled back his avid collecting, if not his enthusiasm for pairing wine with food.
"We can't afford to have every wine in the world," he says. "We can't sell everything.
"The day our last bottle of wine is sold, that's the day we retire."