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11/6/2003

’Cued up

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — It’s not easy standing alone in the restaurant business. Outside influences sometimes can create unrealistic expectations from your own loyal customers.

“That’s almost the hardest thing, fighting the national advertising,” said Glenda Neblett, the co-owner of Shorty’s Pit Bar-B-Q.

She told the story of a very large fast food chain that introduced a boneless, rib sandwich a few years back. People called Shorty’s, Glenda said, asking if the restaurant had its own version of the McRib.

“People would actually call and ask if we had that rib sandwich without bones,” she said with a laugh. “If it doesn’t have bones in it, it’s not a rib.”

Shorty’s will celebrate its 26th year in business next week, and for owners Glenda and Doug Neblett it’s been a successful — and ongoing — battle against giant chain restaurants, up-and-down economic cycles and the changing dining habits of consumers.

“You’ve gotta do what you set out to do the best that you can do it,” said Doug Neblett, sitting in the “saloon” of his restaurant on Ken Pratt Boulevard, where it has operated since 1993.

Shorty’s opened in a much smaller space, at 1118 Main St., in 1977. Glenda, a history-buff from Maryland, helped design the place, while Doug, a New Yorker with a background in fine dining, ran it.

“Glenda still worked (as a flight attendant), and it’s a good thing because the early years were very difficult,” Doug said.

But their authentic, smoked barbecue — using methods and recipes Doug picked up from his family, especially his Tennessee-native father — started to catch on, and what began only as counter service soon turned into a full-fledged restaurant.

Now the oldest family-owned restaurant in town, Shorty’s is a favorite not only for its barbecue but for its “Wild West” feel. The entire building is fashioned after a western town, and patrons have their choice of dining in the saloon, jailhouse, hotel or livery stable.

Many of the patrons are long-time customers of the Nebletts, and many staff members are long-timers. But sticking it out all these years hasn’t been easy.

“I think we’re in a generation that grew up with fast food,” said Doug. “When you grow up you kind of gravitate to the chains and the more familiar names.”

For many longtime residents, Shorty’s is, of course, a very familiar name. “We grew up in town, and they grew up along with us,” Doug said of his customers. But over time, “that base is deteriorating, because of age, or moving away, or health.”

The constant effort to bring in new customers isn’t any easier when fighting against the name recognition of the increasing number of national chain restaurant moving into town.

And there’s the issue of buying power. Doug said the price for prime cuts of meat, such as rib-eyes and New York strips, has gone up 70 percent since August, putting a squeeze on Shorty’s profit margin.

Such fluctuations are a lot less painful when you’re buying for 250 restaurants.

If baby-back ribs are in scarce supply, as they were earlier this year, it can be a scramble for an independent, while chain restaurants “buy carloads, railroad carloads, of these things.”

Still, the Nebletts emphasize they’re not complaining, simply pointing out the realities of the restaurant business.

Employing 38 people full- and part-time, Shorty’s continues as a Longmont tradition, and the couple — married 27 years — say they look forward to continuing to deliver a consistent brand of quality to their customers.

It’s that consistency, they say, that keeps their customers coming back again and again.

“That’s what people always comment on, even in the slow times,” Doug said, smiling. “‘It’s as good as ever — the ribs were especially good tonight.’

“Somehow, whatever got us here for 25 years, we just try to do that better.”

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.