Posted 7/14/15 (Tue)
By Kevin Killough
Tioga may have a new restaurant and convention center—or maybe not.
A hearing for a liquor license at the last commission meeting drew concerns over the nature of the establishment and how competition from another bar would impact established bars. It also drew support from people who believe another business would benefit the town.
The controversy started before the owner of the proposed establishment submitted the license application.
Last month, LaCinda Burbridge came to Tioga talking about plans for the Bucking Buffalo, an eating and drinking establishment at the new commercial property behind the Cash Wise liquor store. Burbridge said went around to local bars, as a representative of the owner, to discuss the concept. At the time, she said the plan was a “Coyote Ugly” theme, complete with women dressed in revealing western-style outfits.
According to some of the people who spoke with Burbridge, she said the bartenders and waitresses were going to be hired from outside the community.
Bob Rupert, owner of the Bucking Buffalo, said Burbridge was contracted to do some initial leg work for the restaurant, and she went a little “overboard” with her promotions. They have since dispatched the idea of a “Coyote Ugly” type bar.
“We talked about a thousand concepts, and it doesn’t appear right for this market,” Rupert said.
Burbridge confirmed she was contracted to do some work leading up to the grand opening. She said the owners changed their approach to the theme, and she has not received any recent communications concerning her role in the planning.
Bar or restaurant?
Rupert is no stranger to the restaurant business. In his North Carolina accent, he talks of the nearly 50 years he’s been operating in the food service industry. It’s not just restaurants. His company, Rupert International, provided food services to al-Qaida at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. The company has held other military contracts as well, according to its website.
Rupert came to North Dakota about eight years ago to pursue opportunities in the earliest days of the oil boom. He discussed business prospects with the tribes at Ft. Berthold, which evolved into the Bison Room at the Four Bears Casino in New Town.
The Bucking Buffalo is his latest project in North Dakota, and he said it will not be a bar.
“It’ll be a first class family establishment with very good service,” he said.
In addition to the restaurant, he wants to set up a conference room next to it. The space will cater to weddings, business meetings, and even Super Bowl parties. The space, Rupert said, can hold up to 400 people.
The restaurant will seat 160 people and will have a rustic interior, complete with an antique pump organ. They will have a smoke shack out back, where they smoke their own meats daily.
He speaks without animosity of the controversy surrounding his plans. He said he has no interest in fighting with anyone. He has every intention of adding value to Tioga, he said.
“Everybody has a right to their opinions,” Rupert said. “We’re happy with the city, and we appreciate their caution and encourage them to review our plan and determine if we’re an asset to the community.”
Rupert said they want to hire people from the community, if at all possible, and local applicants will be given priority. Anyone interested can pick up an application on site, and they already have about 10 local applicants they are considering for hire.
While Rupert said he has no intention of competing with local bars and his sit-down family restaurant wouldn’t pull customers away from them, some local bar owners are not convinced.
Deb Trones, who owns the Rig Lounge II, was among those at the commission meeting who raised concerns about the competition that would come with an on-site liquor license. She said her own bar wouldn’t be impacted, but she’s concerned about the impact it would have on bar owners in town.
“They’re my friends,” she said. “It’s not fair they’re going to have to shut their doors.”
However, she stresses she doesn’t mind another restaurant and is only concerned with the city permitting another bar. She said another restaurant is very much needed.
“I would like to see three or four more restaurants,” she said.
Trones is among the people who spoke with Burbridge when the contractor was floating the bar concept around town. Even though Rupert is talking about an entirely different concept now, Trones said if he holds an on-site license, the city would not have any control over what he does with his business.
“Who’s to say he’s telling the truth?” she said. “He can do whatever he wants in that bar and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.”
She said she’s also concerned he’s just changing his story to get the license passed.
She said for three years she has been lobbying the city commission to limit the number of licenses, but they have not been responsive to her demands. She said the issue is now even more important “in a town that is dying” due to the slowdown in the oil industry.
Her family, she said, has been in the area for a number of generations and watched three booms pass through town. She said businesses leave empty shells to clean up when the boom is gone.
The convention space, she said, also isn’t needed. There are already venues at Neset Consulting, the Farm Festival Building, and the Cenex station.
She also takes issue with the fact they are locating in a new building that is not located downtown, where there are few businesses and others closing.
“What do we have down there?” she asked.
The city has a liquor license that would allow Rupert to serve drinks with meals, but it requires about 50 percent of the establishment’s sales to be from food. Rupert estimates the Bucking Buffalo would do that much in food sales, but he is unable to say for certain at this time. He said discussions on his liquor licensing options with the city are ongoing.
Will the restaurateurs pull out of Tioga if the city will not accommodate his needs with the proper licensing?
“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation.
That possibility has a lot of people concerned, especially with so much new commercial space looking for occupants. An unfriendly business climate could discourage future businesses and developers from considering Tioga.
“This is detrimental to the City of Tioga in regards to economic development, when the needs of the current businesses are put before those of new businesses. Competition needs to be encouraged,” said Community Development Director Melissa Koch.
Commissioner Ronda Davidson is among those concerned about the kind of establishment Rupert is looking to create. She toured the facility last Wednesday and said a lot of her concerns in that regard were addressed.
She said she feels much better about it now that she has seen it.
Davidson said she isn’t committed one way or another as to how she’ll vote on any licenses. She will be getting more information and input before and during the next hearing on Rupert’s license before making a decision.
Mayor Drake McClelland had yet to see the facility, but said he wouldn’t vote against a license to protect established businesses from competition.
“I feel for the ones that have been here 40 or 50 years, but if new business comes in, you have to compete,” he said.
If Rupert gets the licenses he needs, he said he could open the restaurant by the end of the month, and the convention center would open about a month after that. He said he is currently accepting bookings for the space.