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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Iconic Eateries: Over 60 years later, Longhorn Barbecue thrives on the same recipes for food and satisfied customers

Traveling on the rodeo circuit in the 1950s, Chic Lehnertz noticed something missing while visiting Spokane: authentic Texas-pit barbecue.

Lehnertz sent word back to Muenster, Texas, and a gaggle of his brothers, all of whom served in World War II, loaded up their wares in a wood-paneled van and a pickup and headed north.

The Lehnertz crew, including Chic, Don, Claude, Dave and Gene, in 1956 opened the first Longhorn Barbecue at West Second Avenue and North Wall Street in Spokane, now home to a Washington Trust Bank branch.

The brothers then took note of all the military personnel at the then-bustling Geiger Air Force Base (renamed Spokane International Airport in 1960) and the nearby Fairchild Air Force Base. In 1958, they moved into the current Longhorn Barbecue at 7611 W. Sunset Highway.

The same barbecue sauce recipe and cooking methods created more than 70 years ago continue today, and it spawned a separate wholesale business that ships bottles of the Longhorn Barbecue sauce all over the world.

“I grew up there,” said David Davis-Lehnertz, stepson of founding brother Dave. “At age 8 or 9, I would stand on a milk crate and wash dishes and chop onions.”

Davis-Lehnertz, 54, runs the wholesale side of the business at Longhorn Barbecue Production Center in Spokane Valley. It produces about 15,000 cases (12 bottles each) of Longhorn Barbecue sauce that are sold in grocery stores primarily in the Northwest, but shipped all over the country and to Japan.

That sauce distribution business years ago was separated from the original West Plains restaurant, and the newer Longhorn Barbecue at 2315 N. Argonne Road in Spokane Valley. But both venues continue the family’s homemade recipes for ribs to pulled pork, sausage, potato salad and more.

“It’s work ethic, commitment to quality and staying committed to the recipes,” Davis-Lehnertz said, when asked how the business has remained viable for so many years.

Wrinkled shirt

Jane Lehnertz, 74, retired in 2007 after spending about 30 years working at the restaurant with her late husband and Davis-Lehnertz’s stepfather, Dave Lehnertz.

When she started there in 1967, Longhorn sold a generously thick roast beef sandwich and fries for 75 cents.

“Claude or Gene did the catering. And then Dave was in the kitchen frying up steaks. Don worked the nights and on the back bar fixing beverages. Chic worked the cashier at night,” she said. “I always marveled how they worked together and everything went so well.”

The attention to detail, pleasing customers and making sure the food was correct always drove the business model, she said.

“That was part of the success of their business,” Lenhertz said. “There was a brother there all the time.”

That attention to detail extended to employee clothing.

“Back in my day, if you came in with an unironed blouse or uniform, you went home. I was chronic on creases,” she said. “I finally put an ironing board downstairs.”

Some 50 years later, Jane Lehnertz said the brothers’ standards still rule her day.

“I don’t wear anything that isn’t ironed,” she said. “It’s still in me.”

Monsters from Muenster

The five Lehnertz boys who brought their Texas-style barbecue to Spokane represented exactly half of their siblings.

Joe and Agnes Lehnertz raised nine boys and a single girl, Dolly, during the Great Depression in Muenster, Texas, located northwest of Dallas.

“A baseball team and an umpire, is what they called it,” Jane Lehnertz said. “Dolly, poor Dolly. She got the brunt of it.”

Agnes Lehnertz later received a mother-of-the-year award from the local post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States because all 10 of her children served in the military in some capacity.

Born in 1896, Agnes Lehnertz died in 1996, having missed her 100th birthday by about six months, Jane Lehnertz said.

“She was a spunky little thing,” she said.

The parents passed on a work ethic that has lived for generations.

“The Longhorn was very giving with all their employees,” Jane Lehnertz said. “If they got in a pinch, they would always be there for them. They took care of their help.”

Jane benefited from that ethos when she got pregnant in the late 1960s. After moving to California to get help from her father, who was retired from the U.S. Air Force, she started receiving letters from Dave Lehnertz, her former boss.

He often would include cash in the letters, supporting her and her newborn.

“They developed a relationship through the mail,” David Davis-Lehnertz said. “When I was born, she named me after him.”

Dave Lehnertz later forwarded $100 to pay to move Jane and her son back to Spokane.

Their relationship grew, and the couple finally moved in together when David was 6, he said. They didn’t marry until 1984.

“They didn’t want to rush into anything,” David said as he laughed.

While he also developed a good relationship with his natural father, who lived just down the street, David said he saved something for his stepfather that he delivered a couple of years before Dave Lehnertz died on Dec. 23, 2019, at the age of 95.

“When my dad got older, I told him I wanted to change my name. He told me not to,” Davis-Lehnertz said. “I changed my name for Father’s Day. He cried. He was pretty emotional.”

Check the obituaries

Sometime about 1964, the Longhorn was closed one day when Duke Fette came knocking on the door.

The former Navy man announced he was the Lehnertzes’ cousin and wanted a job.

The brothers, instead, sent Fette to work at a local Holiday Inn for two years before they put him to work, Davis-Lehnertz said.

“The joke back in the day was if you wanted a job, you had to go through the obituaries because everybody stayed,” he said. “My title was still ‘dishwasher’ when I came back from the Army. You earned your way.”

Undeterred, the cousin from their mother’s side did end up working at Longhorn and later became one of the owners.

Fette “revolutionized the production and the catering,” Davis-Lehnertz said. “He designed our own chafing dishes and catering trucks.”

Building on the Longhorn’s success, the brothers had dreams of building a commissary that would produce the food that would fuel a series of restaurants.

The plan produced restaurants in Spokane Valley and several on the West Side.

In 1984, Claude Lehnertz opened the production facility in Spokane Valley.

Davis-Lehnertz said he still owns four restaurants in the Auburn, Washington, and Tacoma areas, including the Longhorn Barbecue in Milton. The menus carry the same recipes as the Spokane and Spokane Valley restaurants.

And the business also went big into catering.

“When I went over to Auburn, the biggest catering event I did was 29,000 people for Boeing after 9/11,” he said. “We did several for between 5,000 and 15,000 people.”

Asked how much meat he had to prepare for 29,000, Davis-Lehnertz said about a half-pound per person.

The company had contracts with Microsoft, large construction companies and it sold its meats for 10 years inside what is now known as Lumen Field, where the Seattle Seahawks play.

Upon his stepfather’s death at the end of 2019, he inherited the production facility that ships out barbecue sauce.

“The year before COVID, we did about $9 million in sales,” he said of the sauce distribution. “We are on track to beat that in the next year or so. I miss my restaurants. This has been a very big challenge and very enjoyable.”

New generation

Bill Miller’s stepfather, Bud Fehler, got to know the Lehnertz brothers when they started the first Longhorn Barbecue in downtown Spokane. Miller used that introduction for one of his first jobs, at age 16, before attending college in California.

“Back in the that day, if you wanted something in high school, you could work,” Miller said. “I liked money. So, I started working at a young age.”

After attending school in Modesto, California, Miller hired on with Restaurants Unlimited and helped set up eateries in Beaverton, Oregon, Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis.

That eventually brought him back to Spokane, where Miller worked as general manager and chef at Clinkerdagger, another longtime and iconic restaurant in Spokane.

In 1994, Miller returned to the Longhorn, where he worked with business partner Randy Ingraham for the next three decades.

Ingraham showed up to the business one day and asked for a job. He stayed for about 40 years.

Miller and Ingraham retired in December. They had bought the restaurants from both Duke Fette and Dave Lehnertz, the last living remnants of the original founders.

“I’ve got to give all the credit to the (Lehnertz) brothers with what they came up with,” Miller said. “You’ve just got to make sure the barbecue is the best. And then the service. The hospitality that existed with the brothers was just awesome.”

Even on off days, it was common to have Washington State Patrol troopers stop in to get a cold sandwich.

“They developed the culture. The culture was hard work,” Miller said. “Those guys, they were Texas tough. I gotta tell you, Texas tough has its own definition. I kid you not.”

COVID hits

At the end of their careers, Miller and Ingraham faced a challenge that killed many longtime businesses: the forced shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Honestly,” Miller said, “we got lucky.”

He explained that the restaurant represents only about 35% of the business model. The rest is split between takeout and catering.

“Takeout has just been a huge part of our business all the years, not just through COVID,” Miller said. “We were set up. We had all the packaging. We never missed a beat.”

The restaurant didn’t lay off any employees, but several made the choice to not work during the shutdown.

“We did a little bit of everything to stay in business,” Miller said. “Thankfully, for the team of people who still stayed with us, we survived.”

The reins, earlier this year, were handed over to Miller’s daughter, Erin Everhart, and Zac Smith, both longtime employees of the restaurant.

Everhart started working for Longhorn at age 14 as a “punch girl,” who poured punch at catering jobs. Smith’s first job was as a dishwasher.

“It’s as much a family as it is a job. If I’ve been away for a couple days, I start missing everybody and wondering how things are going,” Everhart said. “It’s just as easy as going hone.”

Even though COVID-19 has passed, Everhart said Longhorn Barbecue continues to struggle, like most other businesses, to find enough employees.

Despite the challenges, Everhart said she and Smith have more than 70 years of a business model to follow.

“The good days are so much fun. The adrenaline of feeding thousands of people and knowing it went well, it’s such a rush,” she said.

“You’ve got to love what you do. The Lehnertz brothers loved it. Zac and I love it,” Everhart said. “It’s not what we do, it’s who we are.”