Dining With Denise Neil

Oh, Pioneer Woman: Food celeb’s busy cafe/store not far from Wichita

Celebrities don’t tend to live and work in the flyover states.

So when one does – and when she’s a food celebrity who sets up a massive restaurant/bakery/kitchen shop in the middle of an Oklahoma town of 3,600 – strange things happen.

People from as far away as Alaska, Maryland, Maine and Florida flock by the thousands seven days a week to a town whose name they struggle to pronounce: Pawhuska, Okla.

Once they arrive and manage to find a place to park, they happily stand in line for hours, waiting for a chance to sample chicken-fried steak or a giant cinnamon roll made in the Pioneer Woman’s kitchen or to buy a set of vintage chic dishes or a roll of her favorite plastic wrap from her stylish store.

On Halloween, Food Network star, blogger and cookbook author Ree Drummond, the redheaded cook known as the Pioneer Woman, opened The Mercantile at the corner of Main and Kihekah in downtown Pawhuska, a town 48 miles east of Ponca City, Okla., and a two-hour drive from Wichita.

Since then, Wichitans have frequently been among the people standing in line for up to five hours to get a seat in her cafe.

“They just keep coming and coming and coming,” says Stacey Merrell, a Tulsa native who’s in Drummond’s home school group and who helps work the crowds standing in the long lines outside. “It’s a great thing for Pawhuska, for sure.”

The center of town

On a recent cold Tuesday morning, the lines of people waiting to get in The Mercantile – whose massive, shiny newness is out of place on the town’s aging Main Street – stretched down the block and around the corner.

It’s not usually so busy on a Tuesday, said Merrell, who was organizing contests, games and giveaways for the fans huddled under heat lamps. But it was spring break in Oklahoma, and the lines had started forming before the sun came up.

By 10 a.m., the line of people trying to get a seat in the deli was 250 deep and had a wait time of three hours. A separate line along the front of the building, for people who wanted only to visit the store or the bakery, was about 100 people deep and meant 45 minutes of waiting. (The crowds are so big and so serious about advancing in line that the store has set up a fancy portable toilet trailer just outside.)

Once inside the 22,000-square-foot building, visitors have options, but almost all of them include more lines.

Those who waited to get into the deli can order from a menu that includes Drummond-like favorites like lasagna and chicken-fried steak plus sandwiches, soups and breakfast. (There’s also a grab-and-go line, which is usually the shortest of all, but people have to take pre-packaged food and head back out.)

After that, they’re free to roam the massive store, which features high ceilings, wood floors and a row of tasteful chandeliers. The merchandise is all from Drummond’s Pioneer Woman Collection – floral print dishes, a leather tote, prints of her photographs – or things she’s curated because she loves them.

Shelves and tables are lined with tasteful and whimsical dishes, including a set of rustic dinnerware designed by Drummond and available only at “The Merc.” Drummond’s books are for sale, including several children’s books she’s authored, and they’re arranged near displays of salt and pepper shakers in shapes of hamburgers or dogs. There’s even a Marie Antoinette set. The pepper shaker is her body. The salt shaker is her dismembered head.

A “cowboy” table includes manly items like camouflage coffee mugs, flasks and candle lanterns. There are novelties like Abe Lincoln bandages and bacon lip balm alongside children’s items like finger puppets and play kitchens.

Drummond also sells rolls of her favorite plastic wrap, Chicwrap, along with cute plastic wrap dispensers.

“Ree picked items that she personally loves and uses,” said Taylor Potter, The Mercantile’s director of operations, who cheerfully offers media tours but insists on strict guidelines: no food photography unless a dish is specially plated by the kitchen, don’t print the menu, etc. “I heard her say once ‘I picked it because I loved it, I loved it, and I loved it some more.’ ”

Visitors also can go upstairs to the massive bakery, though there’s usually a long line to get upstairs, and once there, a long line to get to the counter to order coffee drinks, giant cookie sandwiches, cinnamon rolls and scones. While they’re upstairs, visitors can watch the bakery’s busy staff through glass as they roll out dough, frost cookies and fill pastries, or they can lounge in one of several shabby chic living room setups with mismatched tables, chairs and sofas.

Most of the people who choose to forgo the long cafe lines wait in the shorter queue to visit just the store and bakery. And most of them end up at some of Pawhuska’s less refined restaurants, which since October also have been packed and overflowing with Mercantile refugees.

At the ranch, store

Drummond and her family, which includes her husband, Ladd, and her four children, live on the 433,000-acre Drummond family cattle ranch in Osage County, about 15 miles outside of Pawhuska.

That’s where Drummond films her popular Food Network show “The Pioneer Woman,” and the ranch is one of the show’s main characters. An episode always includes sunset-bathed shots of the sprawling, hilly ranch and a typical setup has Drummond feeding the hungry ranch hands who work alongside her hunky husband.

She started blogging about food in 2007, capitalizing on her city-girl-turned-country-girl story. She told her readers that she grew up in Bartlesville, Okla., on a golf course, then went to college in California. She fancied herself a sushi-eating, high-heels-wearing city girl. Then, on a visit home, she met and fell in love with her husband, a rugged cowboy she calls “Marlboro Man,” even though she assures her readers he does not smoke.

Drummond, also a talented photographer, was one of the early adopters of sharing recipes with step-by-step instructions, each step including a detailed photo. Her fans loved her down-home, gravy-laden recipes.

Her blog became so popular that she got a cookbook deal, and in 2009, she published “The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes from an Accidental Country Girl.” She was offered a Food Network show, and in 2011, it started filming in the guest lodge of her family ranch, which was fitted with a massive kitchen. (Attentive fans will occasionally notice invitations on The Mercantile website to come tour The Lodge, see Drummond’s kitchen, snoop in her pantry and meet her basset hound. All they have to do is ask for directions from a member of The Mercantile staff.)

Her show, which has aired 180 episodes and rakes in millions of viewers, also features frequent cameos by her husband, her father-in-law, her children and various family members and ranch employees. The ranch’s offices are above The Mercantile, and almost daily, at least one of the family members appears in the shop.

On that cold spring break Tuesday, Ladd Drummond – dressed in his signature Wranglers and cowboy hat – moseyed through the bakery chatting up customers, who would swoon as he walked away. His father, Chuck, known on the show as “Pa Pa,” was out front, greeting people as they arrived at the front of the line and posing for pictures with them before they stepped inside.

Drummond’s second-oldest daughter, Paige, is a barista in the deli, and the two younger boys are often seen scurrying in after practices.

Drummond herself makes frequent appearances at the store, though customers are more likely to see her later in the day, staff members say.

“She’s here as much as she humanly can be,” Potter said. “She’s the busiest person that I’ve ever met.”

Packing them in

It’s not unusual, Potter said, for The Mercantile to draw between 4,000 to 6,000 visitors in a single day. She estimates that about 900,000 people have come since the store opened almost five months ago.

People visiting are often there for birthdays, anniversaries or to cross an item off their bucket list. The lines frequently include groups of older couples on road trips, families with young children, moms and daughters, groups of girlfriends.

On that Tuesday, Beth Peters had driven to Pawhuska from Wichita with two girlfriends to see what the Mercantile fuss was all about.

Unaware it was spring break, the friends found a three-hour line leading into the cafe but decided to tough it out.

As they waited, cafe employees would occasionally emerge to pass out hot cups of coffee or bite-sized samples of the bakery’s colorful Rice Krispies treats.

That sort of accommodating, middle America attitude is what Peters said she liked best about Drummond.

“She’s down to earth, but she also makes people realize that flyover states are a good place to be,” Peters said. “She shows the beauty of this part of the country.” 

Pioneer Woman Mercantile

What: A restaurant, bakery and retail store near Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond’s Osage County, Okla., ranch

Where: 532 Kihekah Ave., Pawhuska, Okla.

Hours: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, closed Sundays

Least busy times: Staff members say visitors are likely to find the shortest lines on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during nonholiday times. Breakfast and dinner hours are almost always less busy than lunch hours.

Website: https://www.themercantile.com