Still sorry after all these years
It’s been thirty years since Gary Goodenough opened the burger joint that became a Ketchum icon. Pat Murphy saddles up to the bar to find out what keeps Grumpy’s regulars happy.Photos by Chris Pilaro.
For 30 years, Gary Goodenough has hoodwinked friends into believing his business is real work. The truth? Goodenough works in a mischievous house of mirth showcasing the off-kilter humor of a serious entrepreneur.
Goodenough’s alter ego is Grumpy’s, the legendary Ketchum burger-beer hangout that celebrates tasteless décor while thumbing its nose at business tradition. Despite accepting no credit cards, owning no telephone and accepting exactly zero reservations, Grumpy’s has outlived a generation of restaurant failures in the Wood River Valley.
Grumpy’s is a "hamburger joint," Goodenough says without pretense, named, he says with a wink, for "my dynamic personality."
But Grumpy’s is far more than that. To thousands who flock every year to the noisy, 960-square-foot remodeled home, it’s a social happening. It’s a convivial meeting place where friendships are made and the dress code is relaxed, where an eclectic gathering might simultaneously include a movie star, politicians, construction workers and sightseers gaping at the wacky atmosphere.
Wyoming’s then-U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson popped behind Grumpy’s counter as an impromptu bartender for a wedding party. Some of stardom’s finest—Tom Hanks, Clint Eastwood, Martin Short, Arte Johnson, Ed Marinaro and Bruce Springsteen—have dropped in, barely noticed. Going incognito is all part of the respect for relaxation.
Grumpy’s throughout is the personification of Goodenough’s low-key take on life. Even his name lends itself to satirical irony—as in, "Life’s Good-Enough for me."
Tucked between a hut-sized Laundromat (also owned by Goodenough) and a two-story home turned office, Grumpy’s humble gray home is a portrait of shabby chic. At the entrance walkway, a small hand-painted sign hints at things to come: "Sorry, we’re open," it deadpans. Customers carry on, climb five iron grate steps and open a weatherworn wooden door to enter a world that might prompt wonder, such as, "What in the world. . . .!?"
Six, six-person booths and 14 bar stools are occupied by knots of kibbitzing friends soaking up happy hour. A standing-room-only crowd fills the free floor space and engages in animated, high-decibel conversations with schooners or bottles of beer in hand. Others mill around the pool table (50 cents per game) and keep the jukebox blaring.
Add arcade games and four TV sets and the din is a cacophonous brew of inharmonious merriment. Considering the patrons’ ample beer intake, it’s astounding that in 30 years Goodenough has ejected only four or five rowdies.
But loud conversation and a packed house aren’t what jar the senses on a first visit. Grumpy’s "museum" of eccentric artifacts and mementos, which Goodenough has solicited for three decades, is the real eye-popper.
Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall? Not even close. Try thousands of cans instead. The fad began when workmen remodeling the original house left empty beer cans on wall ledges. Today, Grumpy’s walls are papered with cans of every conceivable age, size, color and country of origin, brands that even seasoned brew aficionados have never encountered. Goodenough’s most cherished are a 1930s "Sun Valley Beer" can with a neck and cap he keeps locked in a glass display case and a 1930s Budweiser can with instructions on how to use a can opener.
As empty wall space diminishes, newobjets de flotsam go to the ceiling. A large surfboard hangs over the cash register. Nearby a life-sized model of a "flying monkey" from the film The Wizard of Oz flies somewhere. Auto license plates, a random assortment of national flags (Sweden, Saudi Arabia), customer photos (most memorializing deep-sea angling triumphs), signs ("Occupancy Limited to 8,000") and mounted animals (sailfish, water buffalo, plastic hammerhead sharks, etc.) round out the interior design scheme.
And yes, Grumpy’s restrooms are treasures of off-color graffiti and purple poetry. One anonymous Grumpy’s male employee claims his women customers are more ingenious in their bawdy graffiti humor.
Since the late ’70s, Grumpy’s fare (burgers, fries, hot dogs, chili, cookies and milk) has remained virtually unchanged and faithful to Goodenough’s strategy—"Keep it simple, stupid." He has so far resisted a devilish temptation to create a sign for fussy patrons: "If our food and service aren’t up to your standards, please lower your standards."
But don’t be misled. Behind this easy-going atmosphere is a meticulously managed business, prided on efficiency. Goodenough brought plenty of savvy to Grumpy’s. He was bartending at Sun Valley’s Ore House and running a meal truck for workers at construction sites when a local burger place named Harding’s closed. Goodenough saw an opening and leaped into the breach.
Goodenough, 62, an ample man whose bushy gray mustache adds to his jocular persona, won’t estimate how many burgers Grumpy’s cooks have flipped. "Even a rancher won’t tell you how many cows he has," he says dryly. But after 30 years, any reasonable guess puts the total at well over 1 million.
Grumpy’s is no solo operation. Over time, Goodenough has sold Peter Prekeges, 43, onetime manager of Smoky Mountain Pizza, a 60 percent share of the joint. The two are a contrast—Goodenough laid back and droll, Prekeges high-energy and serious. The two are blessed with employees who remain unflustered, despite food orders coming from all directions amidst the distractions of a large, talkative crowd.
Is this Goodenough’s training?
"Nope, their parents brought them up correctly."
Rewk Warrum, Goodenough’s California high school chum, is the senior barkeep and mentor for countless staffers moonlighting at Grumpy’s from day jobs as ski patrolmen, teachers, fishing guides, carpenters or white-collar desk jockeys.
Perhaps not surprisingly, and in keeping with his "keep it simple" motto, Goodenough has never considered moving from the building he remodeled.
"It works just fine here," he says of his 30-year-old digs. "And besides, I love the landlord," he chuckles.