Willing to adjust to the times

Mar. 19—PULLMAN — Tawny Szumlas sat at the bar of Rico's Public House in Pullman sampling a savory pot roast, vegetable and Guiness stout stew, destined to headline the establishment's St. Patrick's Day menu.

The dish, the work of the executive chef, Hunter Yackeren, exceeded her expectations.

"It's hearty fare," said Szumlas, Rico's owner. "It's kind of in the European tradition. It's not super spicy. It's the sort of thing you would eat with the family."

Szumlas' interest and involvement in the menu is an indication of the elevated importance of food in the post-pandemic format of the 114-year-old anchor business of downtown Pullman.

Food now accounts for about 60% of its sales while beer, spirits and wine have fallen to about 40%.

Rico's ability to recognize that trend and others driving the wants of its diverse base of customers is the reason it's survived more than a century, often by identifying what seem like unlikely paths to boost profit, she said.

When in-person drinking and dining was banned at bars to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Rico's continued with the parts of its business the rules allowed — takeout and delivery food orders.

Pullman embraced the approach, Szumlas said.

"There are people who went to a different restaurant every night," she said. "There are people that tipped the total. There are people, I don't even know if they liked the food. I don't even know if they ate the food, but they got the food."

It reminded her of what had happened when, as a young adult, she joined her father, Roger Johnson, in the business.

In that iteration, Rico's was a basic, beer-only, friendly spot to tip back a drink and smoke, restricted to those who were 21 years old or older.

Then Washington banned smoking in drinking establishments, leaving a significantly smaller group that frequented Rico's.

"When people stopped coming in to have a beer and a cigarette, they kept coming in for the Reubens," Szumlas said. "That was how we decided to pivot to food, just because we had one thing people liked and we built off of that."

The appeal of Rico's broadened.

"Ladies started coming in and then we opened up to minors and families started coming in," she said.

The Reuben sandwich ($15.95) remains on the menu. Served on rye bread, it's filled with corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut.

It's been joined by items as varied as a cowboy burger with Tillamook cheddar cheese, onion rings, bacon, ranch and barbecue sauce ($17.95) and hard-boiled Scotch eggs that are wrapped in sausage and fried ($9 for two).

Through it all, some things haven't changed. Szumlas and her dad have made it a priority for all the staff to have empathy for the customers, many of whom are marking some of the most important milestones in their lives, she said.

A couple getting engaged might be sitting at a table near groups celebrating birthdays and college graduations.

Sprinkled among them could be men or women uneasily testing the dating pool after divorces or pet owners waiting for calls from Washington State University's veterinary hospital about the fate of their dogs and cats.

"If you take a table and you're there for five hours, even if you stopped eating four hours ago, we still want you to play your chess game, (or) do your homework," Szumlas said. "We're just like a gigantic hangout. You kind of get to choose how you want Rico's to be in your life."

These days, customers are stopping by more for meals, lunch, dinner and even breakfast, which can sometimes be a more crowded time than late at night.

They want something that's not available to them at home that can range from a unique drink with multiple ingredients to the convenience of not having to wash the dishes.

"They don't want to break the bank trying to get it," she said. "They want to (be) with their friends. We missed our friends."

Moving forward, Szumlas anticipates she'll innovate even more, always with an eye toward expanding the number of Rico's regulars.

"We are still kind of finding our footing," she said. "We are inclusive and open to everybody."

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.

Tawny Szumlas

Owner of Rico's Smokehouse Pub at 200 E. Main St. in Pullman.

Age: 43

Education: Graduated from Pullman High School in 1997 and completed a bachelor's degree at Washington State University in hospitality management in 2002.

She worked at Rico's for her dad, Roger Johnson, in college, then managed a bar and restaurant inside a Marriott JW resort in Palm Desert, Calif. After several years in California, she realized she didn't like cities and returned to Pullman to learn about Rico's, which she purchased in 2015.

Her family has been in Pullman since just after the Civil War working at local businesses.

Community involvement: Pullman Chamber of Commerce board member and member of the Pullman Downtown Association.

Hobbies: Running around with her three kids, walking her dogs and snuggling with her cats.

About Rico's

Rico's serves food, beer, spirits and wine in a laid-back environment. It has an open mike night on Mondays, trivia for a cause on Tuesdays and live music on Fridays. Its hours are 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; and 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sunday. Minors are allowed until 7 p.m.