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Howie White: Back from the ashes

by BILL BULEY
Staff Writer | April 25, 2010 9:00 PM

ATHOL - On this sunny Tuesday, just like any weekday over the past months, Howie White is spending his hours at the Saddle Up Grill Steakhouse.

It's still not opened, destroyed by a fire believed to be started by a portable electric heater on Dec. 17, 2008. And when the insurance money didn't come through as expected, White found himself without a restaurant, without a job and without an income.

So the 55-year-old did the only thing he could, the only thing he knew: He rolled up his sleeves and began rebuilding his restaurant - on his own.

As he takes a break from the hammering and sawing and measuring that he has mastered, White turns to a page of his notebook where he has penciled down a list of names of those who have helped him with this overwhelming task.

"Can we mention these folks?" he asks.

Scribbled down are a list of names and their role:

Steve Wallace, backhoe work.

Kurt Bailey, cement work.

Greg Vander Feer, helper, Dutch Mill Cabinets Inc.

Joe and Cathy George, cleaners.

Dan Holmes, owner of KKJ Pizza, help set trusses.

Mike Gardener construction, help most of the time, even while working other job.

Harold Scofield, construction.

Joe Frank from Stock Building Supply, low cost on products.

Craig Birk, donated some windows.

Modern Glass, low cost of some windows.

T & T Roofing, donated tin for roofing.

Storm Mechanical, donated furnace.

Greg Simmons, affordable electrician.

Ron Dayton.

"Lots of people have really come through for me," he says.

White, born and raised in Yakima, Wash., bought the restaurant three years and four months ago. His wife of 15 years, Suz,

managed the dining area that served breakfast, lunch and dinner, while Howie oversaw the kitchen. In summers, they employed about 10 and in winters, about half that.

"We put a lot into it," said White, a four-year veteran of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

Ask him what kind of food the Saddle Up had and he doesn't hesitate. He knows the answer and it's not steak or seafood or burgers, even though they serve them all.

"The best," he says with a grin.

•••

So what happened with the insurance on the restaurant after the fire?

It was quite a bit lower than what we anticipated and because of deductibles and such. When they made the check out, they made it out to me and the first lien holder. Well, that didn't leave us with much to rebuild, so we go to the banks and the banks say 'No way.' If you had about 50 percent of what you were asking to borrow, some banks said 75 percent what you're asking to borrow, we would do it. But they didn't want to do it, so basically my wife and I lived on what we got from the insurance for the last year and four months. That's dwindling down quite a bit and I'm wondering what are we going to do. That's when I decided to move forward in faith and build it myself.

A few people asked what I'm doing, and I said, 'I'm building it,' and I started getting volunteers.

How did it work out?

It sat quite a while, almost all winter, untouched. Ron Dayton kind of got some people together to start cleaning it up. The insurance wasn't paying for that. They didn't pay for the demolition that came out of our money that was supposed to go for rebuilding. Anyway, Ron Dayton got ahold of some people and said, 'Let's help Howie get it cleaned up.' We moved everything out of the building and up to a storage that was donated by a couple.

How's progress?

Pretty good. We started out with some good weather when we got into it in February. It's kind of unheard of to be able to dig in February. You've usually got a lot of frozen ground you're going through. It wasn't frozen at all when we first started. About the first week in March we were pouring cement, which is kind of unheard of in the cold of winter like that. We got it framed pretty quickly, with about 10 volunteers. They work their regular jobs then come here and help out, do what they can.

Were you surprised at the help you've received?

I never really knew the people before. It's amazing.

Are you a contractor? Are you learning as you go?

I did a lot of lumber hardware sales. And I did a lot of side work. Sometimes people would come into the lumber, hardware yard and they'd say, 'I can't get a contractor to come out. It's too little of a job for them.' I'd go out and help them do the job. I also have helped my brother build a couple houses, so I know what I'm doing.

When might Saddle Up open again?

I was hoping before summer. The main thing is funds, having enough funds to keep it going. We've been trying barbecues on the weekends to try and keep a steady money flow coming in, to buy building materials. But that also has to help us live, too. We have a little bit of money set aside for living.

Have you operated a restaurant before?

I've cooked all my life. We had 10 kids in our family, so my mom had to work. She'd leave it up to my brother and I to get dinner for the rest of the kids and then I cooked for my brother. He owns a restaurant, too, in Rose Lake. My wife bought that smoker for me 12 years ago, not knowing it would turn into a business. The first thing I ever cooked in it was for Thanksgiving. I cooked a turkey and a ham and I took it to work and just shared it with everybody. I got like 20 orders from people. Christmas rolls around, same thing. Then spring rolls around, I was asked to do a wedding. Asked to do a birthday, so my wife and I started catering with it.

So how did you end up owning your own place?

I had a job at a building supply store. They laid me off. I told my wife 'You know what? I've always wanted a restaurant. I'm tired of getting laid off.'

We came out here and bought it from an Italian lady. She was serving Italian food out of it, wasn't doing very well. I thought, Athol's kind of a meat and potatoes type of area, anywhere. So we opened it up and did very well, even when gas was $4.15 a gallon. We were only down 6 percent. I know a lot of the other restaurants were down 35 and 50 percent. That's due to the economy, how bad it was.

How hard was the fire on you and your wife?

It's very devastating. They called us at 4:45 in the morning. My wife answered the phone. The fire department knows us, they're just up the street, and my car was here. So the first thing they said was 'Where's Howie?' because I had a bedroom upstairs. My wife says, 'He's here. Why?' Then they told us ... anyway, they told us.

Is this rebuilding project wearing you out physically?

I knew this was going to be a lot of physical exercise and I was up to 250. I was like, I can't do this work at this weight. So three months ago I decided I was going to start working out at the Kroc Center. I'm there from 5 to 7 in the morning. I've lost 40 pounds in three months because working out there and working here and then trying to eat right.

Has your faith helped you get through this?

I have Jesus whether it's good or bad times. Right now, it's not bad times. It's good times in a way. I went through the bad times, I think, with the devastation of the fire. We're headed into the good times. Everybody has highs and lows in their life.

SNAPSHOT

Howie White

Date of birth: Sept. 10, 1954

Education: Selah High School in Selah, Wash. Yakima Valley College in Yakima, Wash.

Family: Wife, Suz, seven daughters between them from previous marriages.

Number of hours on average you work in a week: All my life, probably 60 to 80

Number of hours on average you sleep in a night: 6-8

Hobbies: Fishing, hunting, karate

Favorite book: Cookbooks

Favorite movie: "Lonesome Dove"

Favorite type of music: Christian or country

Favorite spectator sport: NASCAR

Best advice you ever received: Look up to Jesus

Quality you admire most in a person: Determination

Any one person who most influenced your life: My Dad, Roy White. He was a very hard worker all of his life. Raising 10 kids, he worked very hard.

Any one thing you consider your greatest accomplishment: Keeping the faith. Sometimes, that's hard.

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