BROOKVILLE — Their conversation died as three diners bent to eat thick sandwiches late in the lunch hour recently at the Red Mule Pub. Swallowing a chunky bite of a Reuben, Karen MacLeod of Traverse City, Michigan, intoned, "Every time we come to Florida, we stop here first."
MacLeod and her daughter and son-in-law popped off Interstate 75 at Ridge Manor and drove 18 miles to the 12-table deli at South Plaza, which is celebrating 40 years in business this month.
"It’s the quality of the product that keeps people coming back," said Dave Dannemiller, two-year owner of the eatery he purchased from his friend Tim Jinkens.
Tim’s brother, the late Les Jenkins, founded the dining spot in 1978, enlisting college student Tim as partner.
"It was family. You couldn’t say no," Tim Jenkins said.
Marking a 40-year anniversary is rare in the restaurant industry. Stats on failures of first-year restaurants vary widely — 17 percent, according Forbes Magazine; up to 60 percent, states a CNBC.com report.
Restaurant careers never figured in the thoughts of the founders or Dannemiller. Les Jenkins left a 10-year career in banking on a whim. Tim Jinkens, now 59, studied business administration in college. Dannemiller, 58, retired after 34 years as a teacher and administrator with Hernando County Schools.
Yet, with no culinary or hospitality credentials among the manager, the Red Mule packs them in at its original location, with basically the same menu as always, and the same look-at-and-wonder historical décor.
A "solid, sustainable concept" is the secret to a restaurant’s staying power, according to the national Restaurant Branding Group, which studies such things.
"In this town, it makes a difference that you’re locally owned," said Jinkens. And the pub celebrates locale, with walls so closely covered with hometown memorabilia, you can’t see any paint.
Dannemiller and his wife and co-owner, Kathy, are still adding things. But if they move things, customers question it.
"Where’s the Peewee Herman doll?" a customer asked, he said. "Up there with the VW door," he answered.
Still central to the pub’s popularity are quality sandwich ingredients.
"I don’t know why Les chose Vienna (Beef Ltd.) then, but 30 years later, I’m so glad he did," his brother said. No other local restaurant at the time offered meats from the Chicago charcuterie, made famous when it introduced the first hot dog at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
Dannemiller is dedicated to keeping Vienna as its prime supplier, regardless of its cost.
The Reuben sandwich — corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island-style sauce on rye bread — has always been the Red Mule’s specialty and top seller. Vienna’s corned beef stands out as mildly salty and especially tender, Dannemiller said.
"You cut it across the grain, real thin, and it almost melts in your mouth. We make them big," he added, at least an inch of paper-thin slices.
Since the pub’s 15th anniversary, the pub has boosted its deli side, dwindled its bar side, added sides and salads, morphed into a lunch destination, dropped any nighttime hang-out aura.
Summed up Dannemill, "I think we’re clicking along good, doing what we’re doing."
And the name, Red Mule? Les Jinkens, making friends in North Carolina with some red mules, admired their hard-work ethic.
He thought, said his brother, that a solid worth ethic was good, regardless of the business.
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]