For the new owners of the Sloughhouse Inn, the challenges of running a restaurant began when patrons started walking through the door. Apparently, management wasn’t actually planning on customers showing up.
Owner George Lee is the first to admit that he, his wife Leah and the entire staff were overwhelmed when they reopened the doors of the historic landmark in February 2013. Since the restaurant and bar had been shuttered for nearly a decade, he was expecting a quiet opening dedicated to training the servers and kitchen staff.
“The plan was to go very slowly at first. But locals found out about it, and word spread quickly,” Lee says. “That was a setback, no doubt.”
The Lee’s is a classic case of short supply and high demand. The inn, located along the heavily traveled Jackson Highway, had long been a favorite eatery and watering hole for commuters between Amador and Sacramento. But for the past eight years, passersby could only wistfully glance at the vacant facility and reminisce. So when “Reopening Soon” signs showed up in December 2012, consumers took heed.
A year into the venture, the Lees maintain that many of the kinks have been worked out, but challenges remain.
In late February, the food and service at the Inn was all but slain by Sacramento Bee restaurant reviewer Blair Robertson, who condemned the restaurant’s mass- market cuisine, “disappointing” beer selection and a forgetful waitress. As newcomers to a very tough industry, the Lees took the criticism personally.
“My wife was decimated at first,” George recalls. “She couldn’t understand why anybody would say such mean things about what we’re trying to achieve here. We think we’re providing good food and service to good people.”
But in the end, it was just another learning experience for the determined couple.
“I was pretty down at first,” Leah admits. “But then we started getting calls of support. Many calls. Business the next day was very good. Everyone was just wishing us the best and saying that we had their support. It made me cry.”
For their part, the couple brought no formal restaurant management or ownership experience to the table. George had stints in the condominium, resort and golf course development and management business in Hawaii, Amador County and Arizona. But his closest nod to restaurant experience was opening a snack shack at Castle Oaks Golf Club in Ione. Leah, besides raising three children, had dabbled in her family’s wine business.
After working for 10 years in the Phoenix area, the Lee family returned to their home in Fiddletown and latched onto the idea of reopening the Sloughhouse Inn as a restaurant and bar. Leah was the instigator.
“My mom was from Elk Grove. My dad grew up in Ione. As a child, I remember the regular family road trips between the two towns,” she says. “The Sloughhouse Inn was the halfway point, and we all loved stopping there for lunch or a cold drink. When we returned from Phoenix, I found it so sad to see it just sitting there closed down.”
So the couple approached a representative of the Westerberg Family Trust, owners of the inn, which was established as a stagecoach stop in 1850. The original structure burned down and was subsequently rebuilt and opened as a restaurant and bar in the mid 1980s. After a flood in 2005, the owners of the restaurant walked away.
“After touring the site a couple times, it really began to grow on me,” George says. “The history of the place really attracted me. The Westerberg family is still very respected and highly regarded in this area. They are kind of salt-of-the earth people.”
After an agreement was reached, George and Leah went to work cleaning up the place and developing a business strategy. He admits the plan was fairly thin. He felt the history of the place along with its location on the heavily traveled Jackson Highway would attract old timers and curious newcomers alike.
“I had just enough business background to know this was going to be a very difficult task. To take on something like this, you have to have a special mentality. You have to like challenges,” he says. “When we first opened, we did not meet the expectations of the customers. That hurt. But we have been working to improve ever since.”
As part of its business strategy, Sloughhouse Inn employs no chef. George’s philosophy is to take a team approach, so he has a crew of cooks that develops the menu, which consists mostly of comfortable, Southwest American fare. The burger and chicken sandwiches are lunchtime favorites, as are the fish and chips and fried pickles. The dinner menu features several prime cuts of Harris Ranch beef plus numerous pasta offerings, including spicy Cajun penne and shrimp fettuccine. Sunday is prime rib night, and the inn offers a full bar featuring foothill, Delta and Lodi wines. Leah’s family winery, Calabria Vineyards of Fiddletown, is among those represented.
“This place has a history of providing a good meal at a good price. This is neither a high-end nor low-end establishment. This is just a restaurant trying to be a nice, family-friendly place,” says George. “To be successful, we need people to come back on a regular basis, not just once or twice a month.”
He believes attracting a regular clientele is possible despite a perception that the inn is far flung. The restaurant’s customer base is evenly divided between Wilton, Elk Grove, Sacramento, Rancho Murieta and Amador County, so it benefits from a tremendous amount of traffic from Sacramento to the foothills.
“In the fall, we get a lot of people on their way to and from purchasing the famous Sloughhouse corn and other local vegetables,” George says. “In December, we had people stopping by from as far away as the Bay Area after they cut down a Christmas tree.”
During warm months, the inn’s expansive redwood patio, which overlooks rolling ranch land and a creek full of river otters, draws diners and private parties. Weddings are already booked for many of this year’s spring and summer weekends. In the winter, holiday parties and Valentine’s dinner drew crowds.
To improve customer loyalty and ease of access, the Lees have employed a creative strategy. George made a deal with a local limousine service to shuttle Rancho Murieta residents to and from the inn on Friday and Saturday nights.
“There’s a fairly significant population in Rancho Murieta that is in a rather isolated area,” George says. “So I struck a deal with Dan Morris of Greystone Limousines. He loves that he can count on this business, and the Rancho Murieta patrons love the fact that they can count on the limousine showing up at the gated-community gazebo every 30 minutes.”
Once the partnership was established, Sloughhouse Inn saw an immediate, steady bump in sales. “I’m consistently carrying up to eight passengers back and forth on every run,” Morris says. “The CHP took notice of our service and congratulated George and I for our effort to keep tipsy drivers off the road.”
For George and Leah, it’s just one more step to make Sloughhouse Inn the talk of the area. Now well into the second year of this grand experiment, George admits the couple still has a lot to learn but says they’re looking forward to restaurant success.
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