New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro looks for new owners

By Tammy Asnicar for the Tidings

In November, Vernon and Charlene Rollins put their Talent eatery, New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro, up for sale.

For 28 years, the Rollinses have served internationally renowned food and wine in their intimate café on Highway 99. But the time has come, they say, to sit back and enjoy life in the Rogue Valley, an area they’ve affectionately dubbed paradise.

“Foodies from afar are in shock,” says Jim Risser, an Ashland resident who, with his wife, Sandi, has enjoyed Charlene’s “imaginative” menu for 15 years.

“Charlene is a true gourmet chef and Vernon a wine expert,” he adds. “They are amazing.”

“It’s a good thing for them,” Risser says of the Rollinses’ impending retirement. “But it’s too bad for loyal fans of good food.”

“I salivate every time I hear the name ‘Sammy’s,’ ” says Scott McKibben, a self-proclaimed foodie from Carmel, California, and regular summer visitor.

New Sammy’s is the place to spend special celebrations, says Sharon Javna of Ashland.

Vernon Rollins says there was no “ah ha” moment about their decision to put the restaurant up for sale.

“We just know that we can’t keep doing this at the level we’ve been doing,” says the 72-year-old. “We are getting older. It’s time.”

“We’ve made it our life,” says Charlene, 69. “It’s been our home.”

When the Rollinses opened the bistro in 1989, and over the better part of the next 20 years, they served dinner seven days a week, with Charlene as the chef and Vernon the host and sommelier. Then they trimmed hours to six days, and then five days. Now they serve lunch and dinner four days week.

“You can’t cut any more days and still make a living,” says Vernon.

The $1.3 million asking price includes the 1.6-acre property, the 10-table bistro, Vernon’s climate-controlled cavernous wine building and a kitchen garden where Charlene cultivates many of the vegetables, fruits and herbs for her signature seasonal, organic entrees and the flowers for fresh centerpieces in the dining room.

How much the Rollinses assist future owners in the transition depends on the buyers, says Charlene.

The hope is to find someone “truly dedicated to what we do” — which means buying organically, locally produced vegetables, fruits, meat and eggs from local farmers.

“It’s the kind of place that invites a family,” she adds. “A family willing to invest fully” in what she adds “is a very special place.”

Nearly three decades ago, the Rollinses stumbled upon their slice of paradise.

Even with impressive resumes that included stints as restaurateurs in Mendocino, California, and running a bed and breakfast in France, when they moved to Ashland in 1988 to be near Charlene’s mother and brother, they couldn’t find jobs.

“No one would hire us … we were considered old, even then,” says Vernon. “And we were not satisfied with the minor jobs we did find.”

“It wasn’t part of our life plan to own a restaurant here,” says Charlene. “But it was fortunate,” she says of the serendipitous moment they discovered a dilapidated diner along South Pacific Highway.

Vernon says they were able to work out the only deal they could afford with the property owner. He allowed them to renovate the rundown roadside cafe and the adjacent 3.5 acres of bare land in exchange for reduced lease payments.

Eight months later, a purple-painted New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro with a dimly lit neon arrow beckoned travelers along Talent’s South Pacific Highway corridor. Curious passers-by wondered what was behind the red front door.

“We loved the quirky setting, which initially was in what appeared to be an abandoned old house, with no signage, kind of like the Norman Bates Hotel,” recalls Sonoma County, California, resident Dennis Abbe, who, with his wife, Kate, has been a fan since the early days.

McKibben also remembers his first encounter.

“We knew instantly that this was no ordinary place,” he says. “Sammy’s seemed like just a little cozy house, with cow wallpaper and a few tables, limited menu, but the huge wine list was a hint that there was a lot more going on.”

“Each time we visited Ashland after that it was automatic to build in a dinner at Sammy’s,” he says. “We book theater tickets. We book Sammy’s. We know it is always sold out.”

The café’s whimsical name is owed in part to their then-2-year-old, cowboy-loving son, Sammy, who hoped cowboys would come for chow. A chance encounter with a cattle herd on Dead Indian Memorial Road (east of Ashland) where the family lived while working on the restoration and a “two-minute discussion” was all that was needed to decide the name, Vernon recalls.

The café became their home away from home. They home-schooled their son at the restaurant, and he did every chore from washing dishes to baking bread until he left for college. All family meals were prepared and eaten at the restaurant. And on nights when it was too cold to trudge up the hill to their nearby cottage, they even slept there.

Charlene’s culinary talents and farm-to-table commitment and Vernon’s gregarious personality and appreciation of fine wine soon drew food lovers from beyond their home on the range.

Five minutes away from downtown Ashland, New Sammy’s became a mecca for Oregon Shakespeare Festival theatergoers. A short drive from Jacksonville, Britt Festival musicians made it a destination.

“Ashland is the land of ultimate theater and surrounding culinary and wine riches,” says McKibben. “We are foodies, so we love finding interesting, eclectic restaurants to complement our theater experiences.”

In winter, after the theater crowds and concertgoers have gone home, dining at New Sammy’s is still an “experience.”

Risser remembers the popular themed dinners Charlene served in the off-season.

“One year, the menu included food from cities along the Orient Express route through Europe,” he says.

And while many of Charlene’s recipes have a French flair, Risser says the menu features “genuine cuisine influenced by many different countries.”

A two-time nominee for the coveted James Beard award, Charlene’s epicurean feats have been written up in the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Gourmet and Sunset magazines.

Vernon, who has been in the wine business since he was 22 years old, has a passion for fine wine and receives raves about selecting the best wines for his customers.

“I have no claim on being the final authority on wines,” he says. “There are others in this valley who know more than I do.

“But I have drunk a lot of wine, and I have a good memory about what I’ve drank and what I like.”

Vernon says he will miss the wait staff and kitchen crew who are like family, and the hundreds of customers who are his “best friends.”

John and Sharon Javna are among those longtime, dear friends and loyal patrons.

Sharon Javna says the Rollinses have been generous donors to ScienceWorks in Ashland, which she and John co-founded.

But it was their very first encounter with them that forged their friendship.

“When we first moved to town 21 years ago and had been living in Ashland for less than a month, we went to New Sammy’s for the first time,” Sharon recalls. “We didn’t realize they didn’t take credit cards. We told Vern that one of us would stay and the other would come back with a checkbook. Vern said, ‘That’s OK, I’ve seen you guys around; bring a check by when you can.’ What a welcome to the area!”

Since then, the restaurant has been the venue for all the Javnas’ special celebrations. The last was the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary.

“We really looked forward to taking friends there for the first time,” says Kate Abbe. “It was always fun to see the reaction to having this amazing dining experience in such a setting.

“I’m sad that when we visit in August with relatives, they won’t get to have the full Sammy’s experience.”

“We love what we do,” says Charlene.

But like the food and the seasons, “life is full of changes.”

The Rollinses do not intend to travel as many retirees do. Instead, they plan to build and “live in a real house” on the adjacent five-acre parcel.

“We’ve seen and worked in many beautiful places,” says Charlene. “At one time, we thought we’d go back to France. But once we became established in the Rogue Valley, France faded away.

“This is paradise.”

— Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at [email protected].

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