Restaurants and ranching

Written by Mike Shearer, Observer Correspondent February 22, 2012 12:35 pm

AMBER AND SHAWN Parker decorated the walls of both of their restaurants with historical photos. Here at The Stoplight, the photos behind them of Union came from the Union Museum. The Cove Drive In photos came from the Cove History Center.  MIKE SHEARER photo
AMBER AND SHAWN Parker decorated the walls of both of their restaurants with historical photos. Here at The Stoplight, the photos behind them of Union came from the Union Museum. The Cove Drive In photos came from the Cove History Center. MIKE SHEARER photo

UNION — Hard work is the key to starting a business in a small town in hard times. That’s the message of the success of Shawn and Amber Parker of Cove.

The couple owns and operates both the Union Stoplight and the Cove Drive In. Amber takes the lead in managing the two restaurants because Shawn manages their High Valley Road family ranch in Cove, which currently is home to 160 “mother cows,” as he calls them.

Amber said Shawn is the “handyman” for the restaurants: “He has to fix all of the problems, and I get to meet all the people.”

Shawn said he is “slightly shy or bashful,” but he adds, “She’s making me come out of my shell a little bit.” Rumor has it he is certainly not shy when coaching the Cove Leopards football team. 

But it is Amber scuttling between Cove and Union to oversee the two popular eating establishments. 

They say it is fitting that they should be running restaurants together because they met at a hamburger stand in Exeter, Calif. They have been married 21 years. 

“Shawn had lived in Cove and graduated from school there,” said Amber, “so I knew when we met, it was in our future to live in Cove.” They both knew it was the right place to raise children, and they say their teenagers — son, Boss, and daughter, Micah — have benefited from the small town environment Cove provides. 

“I like small towns,” Amber said. “I think you get to know people on a personal level.” 

The Parkers have been active in both the Cove and Union communities. For instance, they initiated the street dance after last year’s Cove Cherry Fair, and they turned their booth outside the Stoplight over to the Cove football team for fundraising at last year’s Grassroots Festival. 

Amber has been participating in the informal monthly meetings chaired by Union Mayor Bill Lindsley to try to plot ways to turn around the town’s economy.

Asked what advice she’d give to anyone brave enough to start a business amid recent business failures, she said, “I had to work a lot of days, and they were long days. It’s important for the owner to present, and my face belongs here now.”

Originally, the couple intended only to run the Cove Drive In, which they bought in 2008. They had purchased the building in Union only as an investment, but when Ken’s Pizza, which was housed in their “investment” closed, they had to decide what to do. Selling the property was an option. 

But on a bus to a football game, Amber said two people from Union talked her into opening up a café where Ken’s Pizza had been. 

So that’s how the Stoplight started in May 2009. 

Asked how business has been, Amber said, “Actually, I can’t complain. I feel blessed.” She admits seasons and weather sometimes affect business, but said she has learned she has “to make hay when the sun shines.”

Comparing their two eating establishments, she said the Stoplight “is more steady, but what helps the drive-in in Cove is its history. Its reputation keeps it in the loop.” 

Indeed, people expect cherry-flavored ice cream during the Cherry Fair, and they expect local huckleberries used in huckleberry season around Labor Day. The Parkers follow such local traditions gladly. They serve the local huckleberry ice cream in season at the Stoplight too. 

In addition to themselves, the Parkers have about six employees in each of the two restaurants. Currently, all of their employees are from Cove or Union. “I prefer to hire people that are local. I need to know I can rely on people.” 

It’s quite clear, too, that Amber does not intend to spin her success off into a chain of small cafes. “Two businesses is a lot for one person to handle,” she said. 

They say they have little spare time away from the restaurants and ranching, but what time they do have is spent keeping up with their children’s school events. They go to all of Boss’ football and baseball games. “He is playing in the all-star game,” Amber said proudly. 

Boss graduates this year, and they say he might go to college, possibly EOU, and elsewhere afterward, but they hope both kids eventually settle back in the area.

“We have deep roots here,” Amber said, “and I definitely want to be around my kids and their kids. The ranch has been in the family since the 1970s.”  

They want to help their kids as much as possible, but not too much, they say. 

Recently on a family outing to the movies in La Grande, Shawn said the movie script paraphrased what he tells his kids often: “Give your kids enough to do something, but not enough to do nothing.”

The Stoplight is at 126 S. Main in Union, and Cove Drive In at 702 Main in Cove.