By Oliver Lazenby
Shirley Schmidt started cooking at Graham’s Restaurant, at 9989 Mount Baker Highway in Glacier, about five years ago and quickly fell in love with the place.Looking out from the kitchen, she’d picture the changes she would make to the restaurant, a Western saloon-style with an ancient wooden bar and a dining room decorated with antiques, rusty tools on the wall, and dressed up with a quirky sense of humor (a help wanted sign on the wall boasts “low pay, long hours, no chance for advancement, and bizarre working conditions all in one job.”)
Schmidt became attached to the community and the restaurant, deciding that if she got the chance to take over the business, she’d pounce on it.
She learned in fall 2019 that the former owners weren’t going to renew their lease, so she put together a business plan to present to Gary Graham, who owns the building and ran the restaurant in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Gary Graham liked Schmidt’s plan — she wanted to honor the history and spirit of the restaurant — and in December Schmidt reopened it as Graham’s Historical Restaurant. Schmidt isn’t necessarily trying to change Graham’s – if anything, she’s made it even more “Graham’s.” She has a deep respect for Gary Graham and a reverence for the way he ran the restaurant.
“I’d heard all the stories about the crazy and fun stuff Gary did, and why wouldn’t you want to do something like that?” Schmidt said. “I think they liked [my business plan] because I wanted to do what he did. I didn’t want to try to make it something that it wasn’t, I wanted to try to make it what it was, and make it better.”
Schmidt brought back “rat chucking,” a game in which “children and drunk people” throw rubber rats into buckets for points. For the menu, She took some of the best sellers over the years and made some tweaks. She brought back some old menu items including the “Mother Clucker” chicken sandwich and the “Clark Gable Deluxe” burger. In general, the menu is fresher, with more made from scratch, more vegan and gluten free options, and less fried food, Schmidt said.
She’s also trying to keep the menu affordable, with $5 kids meals, burgers and sandwiches from $12-$15 and rib eye steak for under $20. Drinks are cheaper than before and after a long struggle with distributors, she’s serving pints of Rainier for $2.
“People are like, oh you can sell your steaks for way more than that.” Schmidt said. “I’m like, sure I could, but it’s gotta work for everyone, especially the people who live here year-round. They’re the ones who are going to be here when it’s slow, when the tourists are gone.”
Schmidt has a few other changes coming, including more live music and, eventually, movie nights. She’s looking to the community for suggestions – “What does the community want for it? This is literally their place,” she said.
Talking to Gary Graham about the changes is important to Schmidt. Gary Graham’s grandfather Earl founded the restaurant in the early 1900s, and the building has been in his family ever since.
Gary Graham, who lives in Birch Bay, has brought in some old antiques to the restaurant, including a scroll saw from the 1800s. He gave Schmidt a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog from 1908 — when he owned the business he cut quirky advertisements from the catalog and photocopied them on to the menu. The current menu includes an ad for a “conversation tube,” a device for the hard of hearing. (Gary already used all the ads for breast pumps, Schmidt said.)
“I cherish every word and every bit of advice he has to offer,” Schmidt said. “Why wouldn’t you follow the advice of somebody who made it work?”
For Schmidt, leaving her spot in the kitchen to manage the restaurant has come with some challenges – she had to give up some control of her recipes and her precious recipe book, for one thing. But she’s known the restaurant for years, and her new job isn’t so different from her old one.
“I don’t think the nerves hit me until opening day. Next thing you know, the first person pulls up and he’s been dying to get there and he orders the Clark Gable burger and then says it’s the best burger he ever had in his life,” she said. “As soon as that first one was out of the way, it was like, this is old hat. I’ve been doing this for a long time. It was like, this is gonna be fantastic. And it has been.”