30 years and still cookin'

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Kevin Johannes divulges a secret. To stay open 30 years in the restaurant business all you have to do is work at least 70 hours a week and hire a good accountant. Other than that, it's a cake walk.

But seriously, the milestones for the Circle H Smokehouse Pit Barbecue are impressive. The mortgage is retired and the restaurant's reputation is solid.

Johannes opened the Smokehouse 30 years ago on Browning Street in Woodland Park. At the time, he partnered with two investors who financed the construction of the building by the general contractor Pete Kuyper.

Two years after opening, Johannes met his future wife, Cindy, who worked for the company that provided the alarm system. “She couldn't resist; I brought her to her knees right over the phone,” he said with a hearty laugh. “She might tell you a different story.”

Cindy eventually joined her husband in the kitchen. The two, with the addition of a full-time cook, smoke the meat, cook the meals, prep the salad bar and bake pies and cakes every day but Sunday. Their children, Garrett, 26, and Kelsey, 22, grew up at the restaurant and today are part of the family business.

In 30 years, the numbers are staggering for the restaurant that specializes in barbecue, breakfast and down-home cooking. In 1,516 Wednesdays, for instance, the smokehouse cooked 112,500 dozen eggs, or 1,350,000 eggs, served 360,000 hamburgers and smoked 337,500 pounds of beef ribs.

In the beginning, Johannes concentrated on learning the barbecue side, gradually adapting the menu to suit local tastes. “Overall, the thing we sell the most of is chicken-fried steak in various forms, for breakfast, dinner, or a sandwich,” he said. “I learned real quick that, if you want to move something, you put a nice seasoned flour breading on it, put gravy on it, and out the door she goes.”

But it was breakfast that put the zing into the smokehouse. “That turned out to be a real good deal, helps keep our prices down,” Johannes said.

For a group of regulars, dubbed, “The Cowboys,” the breakfast gig is a decades-old tradition. “They come in and hash over the world issues for another day,” Johannes said.

In 30 years of fluctuations in the cost-to-expenses ratio, bumps in the road include increases in the minimum wage. “It's not just the minimum wage, it's the workmen's comp which went up this year,” Johannes said. “Those rates are paid on your gross wages. All your matching payroll taxes are based on gross payroll.”

As competition pops up every so often, Johannes keeps his eye on the stove. “The places that have come and gone and the ones that are still here, like Grandmother's, Hungry Bear, Tabeguache, the owners are right in there hands-on, working it,” he said. “That's how the independents make it.”

While the mortgage is gone, things are starting to break down and need fixing, he said. “Hopefully, I'm not on the list,” he said.

While there's no talk of retirement, Johannes is philosophical. “If the kids want to take over, it would be their choice; a restaurant mortgage is kind of like a prison sentence, 25-to-life,” he said.

To celebrate the anniversary March 15, the family offers a variety of specials all day.