Buffalo Chip Saloon and Steakhouse owner Larry Wendt says the days of bars throwing their doors open to guests who just come in and drink are over.
“I think you’ve got to give them added value for the money they’re spending,” he says. “You know, if they’re going to spend $4 for that beer, they better get something with it.”
Cave Creek’s Buffalo Chip – ‘The Chip’ for short – is a restaurant, dance hall, mini-rodeo and all-things western. Originally a feed-and-bait shop that opened in 1951, The Chip has grown from an 800-square-foot building to a 6,000-square-foot attraction on 5 acres. In November 1998, Wendt bought Buffalo Chip from former Green Bay Packer tight end Max McGee.
“I was in law enforcement at the time and I knew that when I retired, I was going to be 41 years old,” he explains. “I knew I wasn’t ready to play golf or fish or fly planes yet so that’s how I got here.”
Wendt was retired for a whole nine days when he came out of retirement to purchase the saloon. He has always had a love for the Western culture and says the multipurpose venue features his favorite things. That, he adds, demands hard work.
“It’s labor intensive,” he says. “We’ve got about 100 employees and a lot of different operations. It’s not just a bar or just an entertainment venue, it’s a big multitude of all those things. It keeps us busy.”
Buffalo Chip has entertainment daily. Every night there’s live music and wherever there’s live music, there’s dancing. Those interested in learning to two-step and line dance can take lessons on Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Bull riding is on Wednesdays and Fridays for adrenaline seekers at an additional charge. Attendees can watch for free.
“We spend $10,000 a week on entertainment. We try to give people an outing, not just a drink.” Wendt says.
Word of the saloon has spread worldwide. On Wednesdays and Fridays, he has hosted tourists from Italy, Germany and China. A chunk of business comes from Cave Creek residents while other attendees are from elsewhere in the Valley. The clientele ranges from families to soccer teams and young country dancers. The crowd is so diverse, it’s impossible to specify one type of audience the venue attracts.
The menu lists Western- and Tex-Mex-inspired food and award-winning barbecue. On bull riding nights, customers can indulge on an all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet.
“We smoke 5 to 10,000 pounds a week of beef, pork, chicken and ribs in these big commercial, Southern Pride hickory smokers and we sell a lot of it,” he says.
The restaurant serves a variety of appetizers: loaded tater tots, breaded cheese curds and Nacho Mamas, a Buffalo Chip favorite. Salads and sandwiches are on the menu, too; the beef brisket sandwich is a bestseller. To top off a meal, five desserts are up for grabs ranging from honey cinnamon fry bread to campfire s’mores.
The Chip has become quite the entertainment hotspot. But not too long ago it had to build itself from the ground up – literally.
On Thanksgiving morning in 2015, news spread that the Buffalo Chip burned down. It was ruled arson. Wendt claims it was started by a woman who was in the night prior. She was smoking a cigarette inside and refused to put it out. She flicked the butt, hit another customer and was asked to leave. On her way out, she threatened to burn the place down.
“Once a month in this business, somebody is upset about something, so you don’t really take them serious. We should have taken that one seriously,” Wendt says.
He further explains the woman returned the following morning while the cleaning crew was there. She snuck into the women’s restrooms and put a lit cigarette on the toilet paper rolls, starting the fire. Fire crews arrived quickly and thought they extinguished it, but they hadn’t. The fire had spread to the attic and 15 minutes later the entire venue was engulfed.
“When someone sets your place on fire, you get the feeling maybe you’re not wanted,” Wendt recalls. “My first instinct was I’m retired. I don’t need this headache and I’m just going to close.”
But he quickly changed his mind. For three days, people rallied around the fenced-in property to show their support.
“It was so motivating to me that we decided to rebuild.”
The Chip kept a small back area open for bull riding and eating from a limited menu for 10 months while the venue was rebuilt. It’s been three years since the fire and the Buffalo Chip is more popular than ever.
“I do enjoy being around people that are having fun,” Wendt says. “We say from around the block or around the world, they come here and we’re glad that they picked us, and we’re glad we get to take care of them.”
The Buffalo Chip Saloon and Steakhouse, 6823 E. Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek, 480.488.9118, buffalochipsaloon.com