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The iconic longhorn sign looms high overhead, touting this week’s specials.
Inside, the smell of savory foods fills the air as waitresses serve plates of flavorful prime rib, tender steaks and broasted chicken. A line forms at the stainless steel salad bar which lights up the center of the room.
This is the L-Bar-B Steakhouse.
After more than 35 years of turning the steakhouse into Clearwater’s landmark restaurant, Francis and Rilla Hanzlik are calling it a career.
The Hanzliks officially sold the L-Bar-B to Jim Swails on Thursday.
A Ewing-native, Swails said the L-Bar-B name, menu, hours and phone number will remain the same. All of the staff were offered the option to stay as well.
“It wasn’t broke, so why fix it?” he asked rhetorically.
Swails, who will reside in Clearwater, is a Scottsdale Culinary Institute graduate and has been in the restaurant business for about 15 years.
“I’ve worked at different resorts, country clubs, breweries, fine dining, mom and pop places to get knowledge for my career,” he said.
In his 30s, Swails started out as a prep cook, working his way up to sous chef and then chef in just three years.
When he was back visiting his mom in Ewing about a year ago, he contacted Francis about the possibility of purchasing the L-Bar-B. Hanzlik told him he was willing to consider it when he was ready to retire and the rest is history.
The L-Bar-B’s full story dates back to the 1960s when Bill Gibbs and Lowell Jensen first opened the restaurant by the same name. Hanzlik said he’s not certain, but the brother-in-law proprietors may have used Lionel Bartak’s L-Bar-B Ranch as inspiration for the name. There have been several owners in between, including Don Sohl and Don and Shirley Mack, but none as consistent as Francis and Rilla Hanzlik. The Hanzliks opened the L-Bar-B on June 23, 1982, exactly one year from the day the Macks had closed it.
“We were driving by here on our way to see Rilla’s mom in O’Neill and saw a ‘For Sale’ sign,” Hanzlik recalled. He contacted the realtor on the sign, tracked down the owners and they revived the restaurant.
Hanzlik had worked in the restaurant industry since he was a 13-year-old in Pilger.
“I started working at Geno’s El Rancho in Pilger at 13 and worked there until I was 25,” he said.
“I started as kitchen help and started cooking at 15. I took over the head cook job when I was a senior in high school.”
Before moving to Clearwater in 1983, the Hanzliks lived in Columbus and Francis worked in a packing house in Schuyler. So it’s not surprising that he knows a good cut of meat.
“When I worked at the steakhouse in Pilger we cut all our own steaks there too,” Hanzlik said. “I grew up with an individual who mentored me. Everything I’ve learned is from hands-on doing it.”
His L-Bar-B customers have always appreciated the attention to top-quality products.
“I buy all choice stuff,” he said. “People like the reasonable prices and good food. People out in rural areas are meat and potatoes people.”
Although different customers have different favorites, the most popular comment he has heard lately is actually salad-related.
“The one thing everyone is telling me is, ‘You’ve gotta leave your bleu cheese dressing recipe,’” he said.
Hanzlik said he took pride in knowing that many of his customers drove “30, 40 maybe even 50 miles to the steakhouse because it was someone’s birthday or anniversary.” He said there were many loyal customers over the years, including two couples from Albion that make the trek to the L-Bar-B every week.
“I’m going to miss people coming back into the kitchen and saying, ‘It was great!’” Hanzlik said as he choked up. “I guess I can’t count the number of people who have come back into the kitchen and have said, ‘You can’t do this to us.’”
Although he was emotional talking about his customers, he is thankful they found a buyer who will continue the L-Bar-B restaurant in Clearwater.
“You see so many times the door gets locked and doesn’t get opened back up and nobody comes back in,” Hanzlik said. “Any business you have in a small town makes a big difference.
We’ve been running anywhere from 15 to 18 employees, not all of them full-time, but that makes a difference in our area.”
He and Rilla are helping with the transition and will be working with Swails and his son Robert, the lead line cook, through the weekend. After that, Hanzlik doesn’t know what retirement will bring.
“I guess I don’t know what I’ll do with my time,” he said as his eyes welled and a tear trickled down his cheek. “Right now, I basically don’t have a day that I don’t have to do something. Even though we’re closed Mondays, you still have bookwork, sales people, deliveries, so if you can get away after dinner, you have one afternoon and night that you can do something. Only three times in 35 years that we’ve had six days off.”
Swails said he appreciates the Hanzliks helping him through the transition period and he enjoyed the change of pace on his first night as the owner of the L-Bar-B.
“I’m used to 500-600 people a night within an hour or two,” Swails said. “It’s a different atmosphere. The people are a heck of a lot friendlier. I will tell you that. And patient. There’s a difference. I forgot what it was like here, compared to a city.”