Jack and Tammy Chess recently remodeled their Smokehouse Restaurant with a lot of help from employees and family members who donated time and labor. The Chesses have owned the business since 1997. The pair open their restaurant early each day, staying open through the dinner hour, offering customers a sit-down, breakfast-lunch-and-dinner dining experience in a family-friendly environment. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
Workers at restaurant, family members volunteer time, labor to remodel longstanding La Grande eatery
Here’s a business remodel and improvement story with a twist.
For a long time, Tammy and Jack Chess wanted to make their Smokehouse Restaurant on the west end of Adams Avenue a better, more pleasant place to dine. They had ideas for a remodel, but something always came up. They spent a lot of their money just keeping pace with equipment maintenance and replacement.
Then late last year, right around Christmas time, they got the job done. It might not have happened, but for loyal employees and family members who volunteered their time and labor. Right down to the elk antler chandelier built and donated by their son-in-law, and the murals wallpapered at one end of the rear dining room, the job looks like it was professionally done.
“We had ten volunteers who worked long hours. I don’t even know how to describe the fantastic job they did,” Tammy Chess said.
The Smokehouse has been a family dining mainstay in La Grande since Forest Fletcher opened it in 1976. Tammy Chess worked for Fletcher for many years, while her husband Jack pursued a career with Safeway.
In 1997, Fletcher was thinking about selling the place. Tammy said she and her husband were definitely interested.
“We were looking at buying our own business, and heard he wanted to sell. We talked to him, and sure enough, the opportunity was there,” Tammy said.
Fletcher passed away while negotiations were going on, and the Chesses closed the deal with Fletcher’s wife. After they took ownership, the Chesses continued with the business model the original owner started with, opening early each day, staying open through the dinner hour, offering customers a sit-down, breakfast-lunch-and-dinner dining experience in a family-friendly environment. There have been some ups and downs, but the restaurant has remained successful.
“We have a huge local crowd that comes in, and some of them have been coming since 1976. We also get a lot of travelers, and a lot of customers from the college,” said Tammy.
Jack Chess said he, his wife and three children, Amanda, Mary and John, all pitched in to make the business go.
“All of our kids worked here. It’s been a family restaurant from the beginning,” he said.
A few years ago, the Chesses obtained their liquor license and added a selection of beer and wine. That was the biggest change in the place until Christmas, when the remodel was accomplished.
“We were planning something minor, but then a couple of our employees said that if we provided the materials, they’d do the labor,” Tammy said.
Some employees brought family members in, and some of those had carpentry know-how. New paneling went up, new cabinets were installed, table and counter tops were re-done. The work also included paint, new light fixtures, and an updating of the salad bar.
Those who helped included Amanda Rainwater, the Chess’ daughter who manages the restaurant side of the business; Rainwater’s husband Matt, donor of the chandelier; Jeff, Michael and Gari Larison; Lisa Meyer; Troy Richardson; Kayla Emerson; Carson Kiele, and Matt Maedche
The group got the work done in record time. The Smokehouse closed Christmas Eve and was open again by Dec. 31. Owners and employees alike are proud of the work and the new look.
“This has always been a family restaurant, and I think this shows what the meaning of family is,” Tammy Chess said.