During World War II, the restaurant thrived with business from the Smoky Hill Army Air Field and Camp Phillips. “There were not a lot of restaurants around those days,” Martin said. The food has always been a family-style chicken dinner. “Back then, there was a budget meal,” Martin said. People could choose between the $2 “blue plate special” and the $2.50 version with all the trimmings. Today the meal sells for more than $10 a person. That includes chicken, plus creamed corn, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, coleslaw, cottage cheese and a relish tray. Home style ice cream is served for dessert.
Martin’s father, Calvin Martin, began operating the restaurant in the 1960s. He was killed in a train crash in 1970, and Martin’s mother, Margaret, took over. From 1970 and into the 1980’s, the hotel’s kitchen was expanded and and two new dining rooms were opened. The hotel also received a liquor license and began doing some catering. Martin, whose wife, Connie, also helps with the restaurant, has expanded the restaurants catering business. “About a third of the business is now off premises, ” he said.
The hotel provides food for functions and special events for Salina area businesses such as Great Plains Manufacturing, Philips Lighting Co. and Excide. The restaurant’s fried chicken and stuffed pork chops, another entree offered in the catering business, have traveled as far as Concordia, Hays, Hutchinson and Manhattan. “We continue evolving, trying to create business that is viable for us,” Martin said. “We will continue to expand the catering menu.” Chicken-fried steak is available upon advance, special request, but the restaurant’s mainstay remains its fried chicken.
“We change through small steps, ” Martin said. “We do what we like to do, and we don’t change it very much.” The hotel, which employs 40 to 50 people, probably serves 100,000 to 120,000 meals per year. A good Saturday night or Sunday crowd is between 350 to 450.
Mother’s Day is one of the biggest days. With the hotel’s catering business and restaurant traffic, 1,200 people are usually fed. “But the business is seasonal, ” Martin said. “We have to balance that with January and February.” The hotel’s customers are usually there for special occasions. “We don’t see the same people every week or every month even,” Martin said. But there are times when people want atmosphere. They relish eating from Blue Willow china and silver on white table cloths. To accommodate large parties that want to stay for an evening, the hotel will open a dining room that seats about 40 people in the mercantile building across the street, Martin said. Those people will be able to tour the hotel but won’t feel pressured to leave for the next reservation. Besides birthday parties, anniversaries and other special occasions, the hotel has catered meals on an antique train operating in Abilene.
The hotel also sees a lot of tour bus traffic from Colorado to Branson, MO. That business could pick up when the Rolling Hills Refuge Center opens nest year. “I expect to get my share,” Martin said of the increased tourism traffic.