On May 16, 1980, two days before Mount St. Helens erupted, Floyd and Karla Brown opened a restaurant in Spokane Valley: The Thrifty Scotsman Drive In at 12024 E. Sprague Ave. Floyd Brown spent his first week at the new business “wiping down the restaurant several times a day.” To make things more difficult, the Browns had two young boys, ages 4 and 5, with a daughter on the way. Life could not have been much busier.
It was a challenging beginning for their young business, but the Browns held strong and, with the eruption of Mount St. Helens under their belt, they have since gone on to serve the community for 40 years through ice storm and recession. And they show no signs of stopping.
The Browns are generous peopl e. Over the years, they have supported local educators, sponsored softball and baseball teams and much more. They used to hang pictures of the Little League teams they sponsored in the restaurant until there were too many to handle and maintain. Now they’re at home.
But more than contribute food and finances to local organizations, the Browns have accomplished something truly wonderful with the Thrifty Scotsman: They have formed a community.
“I don’t know, it amazes me, really,” Floyd Brown said of this community. “You get the parents come in here and then their kids and then their kids, and it just keeps going.” The restaurant doesn’t do any advertising. The customers do it for them. And that’s all it has taken to make their business a success.
The Thrifty Scotsman is known for its burgers, fries and fish and chips. But according to the Brown family, which now includes children Eric, Shannon, Kevin, Aaron and several grandchildren, it isn’t the food that keeps customers coming back (although that would be a good enough reason); it’s the people.
Daughter Shannon Witherow said, “I think from my perspective, it starts and ends with family. We are a family, we are almost all family or friends of family that work here. We are grateful for the people, and they’re an extension of our family. They’ve always been treated that way, and once that was taught to us and we worked here – my brothers still work for that culture – we teach that to whoever comes in the doors.”
Her brother Eric Brown continued, “I think it’s the personal touch and customer service where you could go off and list the names of so many of the customers that we know by name, we know the food they’re gonna order before they walk in the door.” Their parents were in agreement. This is the “culture,” which they have worked hard to create and which their children perpetuate.
The Thrifty Scotsman is truly a family business. Each of the four Brown children have worked at the restaurant for many years, and two work there today. Many of the older grandchildren are employed, as well, and the younger ones come in to help from time to time. But that doesn’t mean it’s exclusive to family.
Part of the Browns’ generosity derives from their being a longtime community employer, offering employees health benefits and a good wage. The result? Impressive employee tenure. The Browns can list off a huge number of employees who spent 15 years or more at their restaurant. People want to stay because of the Browns’ kindness and positive energy, and because the job is a good one.
It’s exactly that kindness that creates such a following. And over the years, that kindness has only grown. “You find most people are good people, and they’re kind. And we get some grumpy ones,” Karla Brown said with a laugh. She recalled one customer who complained, “Hey, this French fry is too short.” What do the employees do? “They give him the longest fries.”
Over the years, the people who the Browns have met and served have become friends, then like family. They have attended and hosted baby showers, driven customers to their doctors’ visits and helped them in all aspects of life, even through emergencies. Karla Brown is full of stories, happy and sad, of the meals she has given for free (to the homeless, to a veteran with no cash) and the people she has seen live, grow up and pass away. In some cases, they know four generations of families.
The focus of their business is the people. “Sometimes it’s not monetary,” and, as Karla Brown puts it, “Kindness is free.” In treating every customer like a friend, and committing to memory their names, faces and orders, the Brown family has become involved in the Spokane Valley community. For some customers who have moved away, The Thrifty Scotsman is always the first stop on returning home.
For The Thrifty Scotsman’s 40th anniversary, the Browns again find themselves in a difficult situation. The pandemic has challenged their suppliers, and the inability to host longtime customers in the restaurant has been a tough adaptation, although this is improving with Phase 2.
The Browns have once again adapted, however, turning an eye to their drive-thru, which has become one of the busiest in town. They still get to provide delicious, economical food to their customers and keep the family business together.
From the Browns, the message is one of gratitude. They have seen 40 years of history and met many customers along the way. It is these people that make their business so special. Discussing their customer-service approach, Witherow said, “All of that stems from gratitude. I think every one of us understands that this has helped create the lives that we have.”
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