On Thanksgiving Day in 2015, Larry Wendt watched as the restaurant he took over in 1998, Buffalo Chip Saloon and Steakhouse, burned to the ground.
The fire, started by an arsonist, destroyed more than 60 years of Cave Creek history, leaving behind just two charred statues as a reminder. “The building was full of old relics and things from the past from the Buffalo Chip and Cave Creek locals,” Wendt said.
A year and a few months later, the Buffalo Chip is in a brand-new facility and offering the Western charm regular customers have grown to love. But it almost didn’t.
“At first, I didn’t intend to rebuild,” Wendt said. “Then there was such an outpouring from the community and the Town Council and all of our old customers and everything. I decided to rebuild, but we knew it was going to take a year or longer.”
Wendt said the community rallied to support him and his staff. “This community — it’s not a large community, it’s only about 3,000 people — they raised $55,000 for my staff. It was right during the holidays, from Thanksgiving through Christmas, and 121 people were out of work,” he said.
Once construction began, it took about four months to complete the new facility. During the rebuilding process, the Buffalo Chip was able to serve customers out of its outdoor bull-riding venue, which was unscathed in the fire. It wasn’t fancy or big, but it allowed Wendt to keep his staff taken care of.
Now, Wendt considers the fire to be a blessing. “We had a very loyal following, but it really taxed the infrastructure of the building,” he said. “The restrooms were small; the kitchen was small.”
“Other than the fact that I didn’t insure it very well, this is a blessing, actually, because everything’s new and updated,” he added.
The new building’s restrooms and kitchen are bigger, and it includes a second floor. But not everything is new. The rustic look is authentic, with antique wood used throughout the restaurant. “When we rebuilt, we could have built out of all new material and made it look like every other place,” Wendt said, “but we were determined to buy all antique lumber — a whole sawmill — and build it back like it would have been in the '50s. I’m proud of it.”
The traditions have stayed the same, too. Visitors can still find boots hanging from the ceiling above the packed dance floor, autographed Western photos on the walls and, of course, the Green Bay Packers memorabilia — in honor of original Buffalo Chip owner Max McGee, the hero of the Packers’ win in Super Bowl I.
“[The Packers] support us unbelievably,” Wendt said. “The third call that I got Thanksgiving morning when I was watching my place burn down — the first one was from my wife, the second was from a neighbor who saw the smoke — the third one was from the governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, who said, ‘I’m seeing your place is on fire.’ They’ve just been a tremendous support. I couldn’t ask for a better family away from the Buffalo Chip. The Packers and Wisconsin have been wonderful.”
And, yes, it was a large but sad crowd at the Chip on January 22 for the NFC Championship Game. “We ran into that steamroller, the [Atlanta] Falcons, and they just ate our lunch,” Wendt said.
The disappointing outcome aside, fans of the Buffalo Chip continue to come out and show their support, in part, Wendt says, because of the friendly staff. “You can go any place in Cave Creek and get a hamburger or some barbecue and a longneck beer and a friendly bartender that might say, ‘Hey, how are you doing,’ but the only thing that really sets any place apart is how you treat the customer,” Wendt said.
— Kirsten Kraklio
Buffalo Chip Saloon and Steakhouse is located at 6823 E. Cave Creek Road in Cave Creek. For more information, call 480-488-9118 or visit www.buffalochipsaloon.com.