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Durkin’s, Casper Fry owner Ben Poffenroth talks working with family, pandemic, burgers and Old Fashioneds

UPDATED: Wed., March 2, 2022

Ben Poffenroth, his mother Deb Green and his sister Megan VanStone own and operate Durkin’s Liquor Bar downtown, Madeleine’s Café & Patisserie next door and Casper Fry in the South Perry District.

Working with family has been smooth sailing, but the pandemic obviously has not been as easy. Poffenroth talked about a number of topics, including his family, opening his first restaurant and what makes a top burger, over breakfast at Remedy on Saturday morning.

Ben, you have a food family dynasty here in Spokane. Please explain to me the dynamics with Durkin’s Liquor Bar, Casper Fry and Madeleine’s Café & Patisserie.

Our family has been working together for a long time. When my mom started her catering business inside of our house, we were young kids, and we helped her. I was born and raised in Spokane, and we’ve always been in the food scene.

She started her café, my sister went to pastry school, and we opened Madeleine’s. I moved back from Eugene, Oregon, got into the coffee world and helped manage Madeleine’s. With Casper Fry, I was trying to open my own coffee roasting company with my mom, a brick-and-mortar, but she found the Casper Fry location and said, “We’re opening another restaurant.”

So, that was the end of that (laughs), and we opened Casper Fry in June of 2012. Madeleine’s opened in 2008 and moved locations in 2015. Durkin’s opened about six months before Madeleine’s new location, so it’s been about seven years now.

So, is Casper Fry your restaurant with your mom?

My sister was involved, as well, all three of us, but she was just about to have her first child and stepped down. It evolved to me running Casper Fry and my mom returning to Madeleine’s. Two years after Casper opened, we were doing great, and we were approached to open another restaurant where Durkin’s is now. We already had a concept in mind.

Was the concept to have Durkin’s and Madeleine’s next door to each other?

It just worked out that way. It wasn’t the original plan, but the lease was up in the original Madeleine’s location.

How are the three places doing comparatively?

Durkin’s is the breadwinner. Casper did well and paid for Durkin’s, but now it’s a little slower in the neighborhood. Downtown seems to be progressing more and more, and Madeleine’s has just been a steady ship the whole time – 15 years.

Why do you think Durkin’s is the breadwinner?

I think the location, concept and development. Downtown is really growing. I opened Casper Fry when I was 26 and had never full on run a restaurant before. Now I’m 35 and more experienced. I’ve always had a great team at Durkin’s.

A lot of people say Durkin’s has one of the best burgers in town. Why do you think that is?

A lot of development and time went into it, from choosing the kitchen equipment to make it to our initial chef taking the time to figure out how to make the cheese, how to make the bacon, choosing the quality of meat and grinding it. It’s complex, but it’s simple.

What do you eat at your three restaurants?

I don’t eat a lot at Durkin’s anymore. I got killed on burgers – I can’t eat them anymore (laughs). At Casper, I eat jambalaya a lot, which is one of our house staples, and down at Madeleine’s, breakfast burritos. At Durkin’s, it’s usually a salad.

It is said that you should never work with family. How have you been able to do it successfully all this time?

It’s been pretty easy, to be honest. Every family has its little battles here and there, but my mom and I work really well together. When I work with my sister, we work really well together. We’re all hard workers, and we have the same goals.

My youngest sister currently works for me, and she is also a really hard worker. It’s just what was taught to us as kids. We played sports. We worked hard at them. Our parents taught us well. We have great grandparents who took care of us.

When was the last time you disagreed about something at work?

It’s probably been a couple years (laughs). We don’t get into huge fights. We might have a day or two where we don’t talk to each other for a little bit, but there have never been huge fights.

So, what have been the biggest challenges for your restaurants in the pandemic?

Financially, it was a struggle. Luckily, my mom put her foot down and tackled all the loans she should get through PPP and state grants. That helped us get through. We did move some staff, and some staff members stayed onboard. That was challenging, as well.

We as a family feel responsible for our staff members. We want to take care of them as much as we can, and we know that the whole world is going through the same thing. All the mandates, as much as they are appropriate, were really hard on the restaurant world and a lot of industries.

Having your doors open in the winter and having a restaurant with six booths where you can only seat three of them at one time, it was difficult.

Do you feel optimistic about the future of your restaurants now?

I do. I feel optimistic that dining will resume. I’m not sure how the employee world will be. I don’t know if people will want to come back because it’s such a hard industry. A lot of people took time to find new careers during the pandemic and not have to work until 2 a.m. anymore.

I’m optimistic financially that we’ll get back to where we need to be. We had about 60 employees before the pandemic, and now we’re down to about 30. Our hours are cut back. We’re not serving lunch at Durkin’s or Casper anymore. Our goal is to continue to build our new team or bring more people into our new team to build back.

Durkin’s, as well as Casper Fry, has a solid reputation in the bartending, cocktail and mixology world. Why do you think that is?

From past employees, their dedication to their craft speaks a lot for itself. I learned how to bartend the second year Casper was opened. I started all over the place. I cooked, washed dishes and ran the floor and then I started bartending.

What do you like to do the most?

I like bartending. It just comes easier to me. But I’m at a point where I can see the entire floor and direct staff and help them vs. just serving tables. I can give directions if I need to.

What is your go-to cocktail?

Old Fashioneds. Sazeracs were probably my No. 1 when I first started bartending. I love a good Sazerac.

What are you most excited about now for Durkin’s and Casper Fry?

I’m really stoked on our menu now for Casper Fry. Our chef Taylor Rainwater is doing a great job. It’s been nice to have consistently good food because that can be a struggle, and he’s doing a really great job.

We’re about to lose our chef at Durkin’s, but I do have a new chef coming in from Oregon, and I’m excited to have him. He’s been in the food scene for a while and has connections all over Portland. I’m excited to see where he’ll take us.

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