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New Sammy's Bistro among Almeda casualties

After pouring all their time, energy and resources for 30 years into a restaurant, Charlene and Vernon Rollins finally will have a house.

The Almeda fire destroyed both the couple’s New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro in Talent and their mobile home just steps from the storied establishment. While the restaurant was insured, the residence was not. As they weigh whether resurrecting New Sammy’s is feasible, the Rollinses concede that their more pressing need is shelter.

“We wound up with the clothes on our backs,” says Charlene, New Sammy’s chef and chief gardener.

A GoFundMe campaign is collecting donations for the couple, both in their 70s, who couldn’t conscience reopening the New Sammy’s dining room since statewide restaurant closures to curb the coronavirus. The fundraiser has accrued about half of its $100,000 goal.

To keep the restaurant afloat since spring, the Rollinses had reinvented New Sammy’s as an outlet for takeout. Charlene, 72, worked 14 to 16 hours every day to reconfigure for customers’ home consumption her distinctive, seasonally fresh cuisine prepared with numerous ingredients organically grown on site. As she juggled the challenge of cultivating food with cooking and preserving it, Vernon, 75, says the garden had never been “more beautiful and productive.”

“The garden was a great refuge for us,” says Vernon, who was Charlene’s only kitchen assistant since spring. Vernon provided New Sammy’s distinguished wine service since its inception June 1, 1989, at 2210 S. Pacific Highway.

Jumping Highway 99 from vegetation along the Bear Creek Greenway, the wind-whipped Almeda fire claimed New Sammy’s as one of its first commercial casualties the afternoon of Sept. 8. Because the restaurant was closed Tuesday, the Rollinses credit a casual conversation with friends in their parking lot as a literal lifesaver. A Jackson County sheriff’s deputy spotted the group, pulled off the highway and told them to evacuate immediately.

“We took a bottle of wine and a bottle of water,” says Charlene, adding that she also grabbed their phone book but didn’t safeguard their computer. The couple have never owned cellphones.

Spending the night in their car among other evacuees at the Jackson County Expo, the Rollinses despaired that they couldn’t get back to Talent the next morning. A day later, they parked at the Valley View Road interchange with Interstate 5 so Charlene could trek the mile to New Sammy’s. She met a man walking the opposite direction and asked about the restaurant. He replied only with a hug.

“He didn’t say anything,” says Charlene. “Told me what I needed to know.”

She forged ahead and arrived at a still-smoking scene of “total devastation,” a maze of twisted metal she cautiously surveyed. Green beans hung ready to harvest in the garden, and ripe fruit clung to the trees, but everything edible had been spattered with fire retardant.

“I could tell right away that it wasn’t fixable,” she says. “I wouldn’t even want to touch anything.”

More than two weeks later, Charlene can’t keep from chopping, stirring, kneading and mixing since she and Vernon accepted the hospitality of longtime Ashland friends Dan and Joan Thorndike. The ritual of preparing food grounds her and Vernon, guiding them through otherwise directionless days.

“This is like an enforced vacation,” says Vernon.

In fact, the couple say they may finally retire after listing New Sammy’s for sale with no serious interest over the past three years. Their son, Sammy, maintained for years that he wouldn’t run his namesake business, although he’s mourning the restaurant that was more of a home during his childhood than any house could be. The repository of their memories actually needed decluttering, which the fire conveniently handled for them, the Rollinses joke.

“Some of it was precious, and a lot of it wasn’t,” says Charlene.

Of interest to many longtime customers is Vernon’s wine collection — some 25,000 bottles that went up in smoke. A list of more than 3,000 labels in New Sammy’s heyday garnered acclaim in several national publications, including Bon Appetit and Food & Wine magazines. But the Rollinses say they auctioned off their truly valuable vintages several years ago. They lament instead the sacrifice of their personal wine collection, many bottles gifted from friends, which they anticipated drinking in retirement.

“That’s like losing personal items that were on the wall,” says Vernon.

The loss of a restaurant that, for many diners, had no peer not only is inspiring generosity but endearing the Rollinses to people who don’t know them personally.

“There’s a feeling of community we have now that we’ve never had before,” says Charlene.

A regular patron of New Sammy’s takeout service, Leslie Crabtree says she felt “gut-punched” seeing the Rollinses seemingly adrift at Ashland’s Shop’n Kart. After expressing her sympathies, Crabtree says she ducked into an aisle and started sobbing. Another shopper, coincidentally a New Sammy’s customer, asked Crabtree if she was OK, heard the Rollinses story and soon suggested GoFundMe.

“The response has been really wonderful,” says Crabtree. “Because New Sammy’s was a destination for food lovers from across America, the link for the fundraiser has been widely shared, and consequently donations, messages of support and grief for their loss have come from folks near and far.

“So many kind comments from folks who remember the one brilliant time they ate there or others who celebrated every important event at New Sammy’s.”

The prospect of celebrating new milestones keeps the Rollinses optimistic. Their intended home site, farther from New Sammy’s than their mobile, was largely unscathed by fire. Installing a commercial kitchen, if not a full-fledged restaurant, will facilitate Charlene’s artisan baking or perhaps pop-up dinners.

“This is an opportunity to build a house,” says Vernon, “which we’ve never had before.”

See the New Sammy’s GoFundMe campaign at newsammys.com.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsCharlene Rollins and Wes Reimer work on preparing meals at Hither restaurant in Ashland.
Andy Atkinson / Ashland TidingsCharlene Rollins works on preparing meals at Hither restaurant in Ashland.