You just have to believe me when I tell you that Niko Jensen is not a visionary genius. He isn’t some pied piper for hope and change. No sir. All he wanted was to open a family-friendly, fine dining establishment in South Fork. That’s it.
Niko is a hometown boy. I mean, his roots run deep. Both he and his wife, Adrianna, are fourth generation South Fork-ians. It’s a rare thing around here to find people whose history goes back that far. Most of their friends moved away after graduating high school, because, well, back then, what did South Fork have to offer?
Not sure if you know this, but time was South Fork was a busy shipping port. It was, hell, still is, the hub for the whole region west of the Interstate. It’s right at the mouth of the south fork of the Nilsen, which runs out of the Cascades, through Longview, and then all the way out to the coast. The Port of South Fork had piers all up and down the river. Used to run all sorts of products this way and that, and took in a lot of things from other places, as well.
When the economy tanked back in the ’60s, places like South Fork became something like a ghost town. The port closed when the import and export of things went to Portland and Seattle. Oh, sure, some people stuck around. If they were lucky, they’d snag one of the logging or fishing jobs that occasionally opened up. Others would go to the community college to learn another trade, but in time, they’d leave, too. There just wasn’t any commerce to keep people here.
These days, it’s a whole different story. South Fork’s on the uptick again, and everyone has Niko, and his partner Charlie, to thank for it. I’m telling you, everyone. So, you’ll have to forgive folks if they think of Niko as some sort of savior, or genius.
As I said, Niko is none of that. He was just a guy who had a dream of opening up a his own place. Back then, he was the bartender at the Greenlight Tavern. This was some fifteen, twenty years ago. On slow nights, he’d lay out all his crazy ideas for a restaurant with the tavern barflies. And, by crazy, I mean, crazy, like, hiring a bonafide chef—not a cook, mind you, but a trained-in-a-school-for-chefs, chef. He’d go on and on about wine lists, and putting things like duck and gazpacho and tiramisu on the menu, and other stuff, like, what’s it called, sous vide, whatever, and sautéed, blah-blah-bah. But, here’s the craziest part: He also wanted to make the place kid friendly during the day so the stay-at-home moms and dads had a place to go.
His tavern regulars would shake their heads and counter him with comments like, “Can’t have underage kids in bars in this state, and ya gotta have a bar, or why even do it?” or, “What the hell’s wrong with burgers and pizza?” or, “How about a Mexican place. You should open a Mexican place.” or, “Families already have the run of this place up front,” or, “If I want a fancy restaurant, I’ll drive to Longview, or out to Astoria,” or, “I come here to get the hell away from the f’n kids, man. Why you wanna set up a place for kids? Let ’em go to f’n McDonald’s or Fred’s Frisco Freeze.”
Niko, he would just smile that big smile of his and tell them they’d just have to wait and see. A few of those old birds lost some pretty big wagers, I tell you.
It all got started when Kurt & Kathi Halvorsen announced the closing of their Hallmark Cards and Finer Home Furnishings Emporium. Niko jumped at the opportunity to take over the lease. He didn’t have a full plan for his restaurant yet, didn’t even have his all-important chef lined up, and hadn’t figured on a full build-out, but the gift store was the perfect location. Everyone agreed on that. Located right on the corner of McGraw, which is South Fork’s main drag, and 10th Avenue, which is the junction of the state highway that connects the Interstate to the famous Coast Highway 101. You couldn’t hope for a better spot.
Niko ploughed ahead, figuring he’d look for a chef while he built the restaurant. He put in a state-of-the-art commercial kitchen, booths along the wall, good looking oak tables and chairs in the middle, and a long, solid wood counter that had a clear view of the kitchen. At the front, he extended the counter to create a small bar, leaving enough room for a few 2-tops, because he knew his regulars were absolutely right about having a bar. For the daytime crowd, he put in an ice cream freezer, espresso maker, and bought the old rotating pastry display case from Solvang’s Bakery to display muffins, cinnamon rolls, sandwiches and salads. And, then, way in the back, he built a half wall that enclosed a designated place just for kids. In it, he put your basic picnic table and benches, and a box full of toys. Around the outside of what he called the Romper Room, Niko put in a bar top and stools for the moms and dads to sit and drink their expensive coffees, while they talked with their friends and watched their kids.
Like I said, it was a crazy-ass idea, but Niko somehow knew what he was about, because, I’m tellin’ ya, it works. They open at eight in the morning and the place is jumpin’ with the mommy-and-me set until they close at three to get ready for dinner service. Then they open again at five. It’s everyone’s go-to place for a special night out. Believe me when I say, the wait staff has seen their fair share of little velvet jewelry boxes, sappy smiles and happy tears. So, for that matter, you can forget about getting a seat for Mother’s Day brunch, or Valentine’s Day, or Prom Night. After the dinner folks go home, a band will set up in the front corner and play jazz, or country, or whatever, every night but Sunday and Monday. In the summer, folks sit outside along the sidewalk, al fresco, as Niko says they call it, and all the windows and doors are opened so the folks inside can also enjoy the warm weather. You can hear the music all over downtown on those nights. It’s great.
Anyway, back to the beginning: Niko finished his build-out, named the place The McGraw Bistro, and put up a huge “Opening Soon!” poster in the front window. Everyone was excited. Everyone, but Niko. He was up against a problem he hadn’t thought through, and that problem was South Fork. He was learning the hard way that most experienced chefs weren’t interested in working anywhere but the city, let alone in a place nobody has ever heard of.
So, there he was, his restaurant ready to go, but no chef. Many cooks applied for the job, even a couple of chefs that worked the hotel circuit in the cities, but Niko turned them all down. He didn’t want someone who was just going to put up the usual salmon, steak or grilled chicken garnished with a sprig of parsley. No, sir. Niko knew what he wanted and was determined to have it.
We were pulling for him, but I felt badly for Niko. I really did. We all did. Here he was, putting all his money and faith into believing The McGraw Bistro would work. Could work. South Fork-ians starting gossiping about what a shame it was that the place was a failure before it even opened. I mean, the man was in debt up to his ears. But, Niko is Niko. He’s got a lot of that hard-tack South Fork in him. He was determined to keep his dream and his family afloat.
He took more hours at the tavern and picked up odd jobs whenever he could. Adrianna also took on extra work. She’d been the office manager at the public utility since graduating the community college, which paid really well, but she took on a weekend cashier job in the strip mall in Perinville to help pay for their mounting bills. Even his kids pitched in. Niko and Adrianna like to tell the story of their kids announcing one night at dinner that they wanted to help. Their son figured he could do yard work around the neighborhood, and their daughter said she applied for a job at McDonalds. She said she wanted to learn the restaurant business so she could work for her dad when his restaurant opened.
The longer Niko held out for a chef, the worse it got for them. He and Adrianna hawked or sold just about everything in their home in order to keep up with the lease. Friends and family loaned them what money they could. The months kept ticking by with the place empty, and that “Opening Soon!” poster in the front window.
Adrianna likes to tell everyone the story of the night she and Niko were at their dining room table sorting through the past-due bills that had to be paid versus which ones could be put aside for another month, and which creditors to call to negotiate payment plans. She says she got to a point where she broke down and started crying, I mean, really bawling her eyes out. She gave him an ultimatum that night: Either hire the next available cook, any cook, or find someone to sublet and drop the whole thing.
This is the part in the story where she always gives out a little laugh. Niko caught her by surprise by agreeing with her. He tells her he’ll get out of the lease, since there probably is no one going to sublet anyway, and that he’d find a better paying job in Longview, or somewhere north. He told her to quit her weekend gig; that he’d pay off the lease penalty and all their debt. He got them into this mess, he’d get them out of it. You see, to Niko, it was an all or nothing deal. Either he’d have the restaurant he wanted, or he wouldn’t bother. Adrianna said Niko spent the rest of that sleepless night on the back porch with a bottle of J.D.
So, the day Charlie Rodriguez and his wife Clare walked into The Greenlight Tavern was one of those crazy turns of serendipity you always hear about, but can’t believe actually happen.
Charlie and Clare take seats at the bar, order a couple of beers and something to eat. When Niko comes back with their beers, Charlie says, “What can you tell us about the place down the street, on the corner?” Niko says, “Anything you want to know. It’s mine. For a little while more, anyway,” and tells them the whole story.
Charlie and Clare look at each other, and then Clare says, “Are you looking to sell? We want to open our own place, somewhere around here, in the county.”
Charlie explains he and Clare were thinking of opening a place out at the coast, that being the most logical, what with vacationers and tourist, and the like, but Clare grew up in the area and has been trying to convince Charlie that anywhere along the state highway would be just as good a location as the coast.
Niko tells them if they wanted to talk about subletting his place, he’d be grateful if they’d consider it. Charlie and Clare nod agreement, and then Niko asked why they want to open their own place.
“I’m a chef,” Charlie says. “Always wanted a place of my own and, now that our kids are older, I’m ready. I don’t want to open a place in the city. I like the idea of having a place out of the way.”
The week The McGraw Bistro opened, the Cedar County Beacon ran a huge, front page picture of Niko and Charlie replacing the “Opening Soon!” sign with a “Grand Opening!” banner. People jammed the place every day for a month. Pretty soon the folks driving to and from the coast, seeing all these cars parked out front, starting coming by, at first out of curiosity, but then becoming regulars themselves.
Then, some woman who writes a travel column in the Seattle Times stops in, and is blown away. Her article, which ran in the Sunday Lifestyle section, complete with a picture of Niko and Charlie in the kitchen, both of them with those big, goofy smiles of theirs, really turned things around. But, here’s what nobody was expecting: The popularity of the place spurred a renaissance in South Fork.
First thing to get going was Solvang’s Bakery. They make the bread and desserts served at The McGraw Bistro that everyone was is crazy about. Orders for the stuff were in such high demand, old man Solvang had to expand the bakery just to keep up. By and by, Solvang’s ended up on every list as one of the best bakeries in the state. It just kept going from there.
Charlie convinced a winery to open a tasting room next to the restaurant. Next thing you know, two more wineries follow suit, followed by a couple breweries. Then, Anderson’s Ranch got in the game and opened a storefront so people could pick up meat, dairy and eggs without having to drive out to the ranch. The farms in Cedar County put together a street market at the Civic Park on Sundays, which now draws in tourist and locals, alike. Three more restaurants—with chefs—opened within the first five, six years of The McGraw Bistro. A few years ago, the farmer’s market folks turned the first weekend in August into a full-on food festival they call Bite of South Fork.
And, the rest, as the saying goes, is history. South Fork evolved into what the magazines call, “a quaint, country destination.” People moved back, new folks moved in, houses were built, another elementary school was approved, Best Western bought the run-down hotel and reopened it, and state and federal grants rolled in, one after the other, to help with the clean-up of the old port along the river, so South Fork could expand its business district. Ha! I mean, listen to me! “Business district!” We’re all retail and commercial industry experts these days.
Anyway, newspapers and magazines, and web folks who write stuff on the internet, put out one article after another about South Fork’s rise from the ashes, and each time they do, more people pour in. Art galleries and boutique gift and clothing shops now line McGraw and 10th. The township finally has enough revenue to invest in a new infrastructure plan, even created a whole new planning department to take on the task. The community college board voted this year to add a “School of Culinary Arts,” and start an internship program for the students in all these restaurants in town. Then, just last month, the town council voted to change the South Fork city logo from the standard emblem with a river in its center, to a silver fork wrapped in a napkin with stalks of wheat and corn fanned behind, and an apple in the foreground.
Niko went from being the town crazy everyone felt sorry for, to being called South Fork’s savior. Oh, sure, some say he was just lucky in his timing, what with all the fuss about “farm to table,” and getting back to wholesome food, and organic this and that, and country life becoming all the rage for folks from the city and suburbs. They may be right. I mean, it certainly didn’t hurt. The way Niko saw it, it was the combination of two things: Hard luck South Fork citizens with nothing more to lose; and Charlie and Clare walking into the tavern that day.
Oh, sure, Niko had the idea for a restaurant in the first place, but Niko’s a humble guy. He’d never say his dream had anything to do with it. But, deep down, I know he’s proud as proud can be. And, I mean that in a good way. Nothin’ more gratifying than seeing a dream come true. The rest is just gravy.