Mon – Thurs: 11:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Fri – Sat: 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.
Sun: 11:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
From suits to irrigation boots, all are served at Goehner barbecue pit
News of a barbecue pit at Goehner, Nebraska came my way by my friend Tom, whose idea of an entertaining weekend is riding his ’99 Honda Gold Wing, 50th Anniversary Special. He and his friend, Mike, from McCool Junction, on an ’15 Honda Gold Wing too, explore the Nebraska highways and byways, and when purring by a town they have never visited, they often wheel in and explore.
“I may have passed that town sign for many years and never stopped for a visit, and when I do stop, I often discover something special about the town,” Tom said. When he and Mike noticed the bikes parked at Chez Bubba Café on the main street of Goehner, Nebraska, a town with a population of 155, they paused to investigate. They tasted Chez Bubba barbecue and now rate Chez Bubba five stars in hospitality and barbecue.
His enthusiastic endorsement echoed in my mind when returning from the Lincoln airport on an early evening in September. Instead of taking the time to scout out a restaurant in Lincoln, why not avoid city traffic and go to Goehner, I thought. I could try the barbecue at Chez Bubba, only 35 miles west of Lincoln and immediately off Interstate 80.
The moon was rising in a star-lit sky when we arrived in Goehner. As we wended our way on unmarked gravel roads toward the center of town searching for the café, bright lights drew us to main street, and the Chez Bubba sign beckoned us to a one-story wooden building. We walked in and were greeted, warmly welcomed and shown to a table.
Ribs based on friend’s recommendation don’t disappoint
I debated between ordering the hamburger of freshly ground sirloin or the ribs. I ended up selecting barbecue ribs entirely based on Tom’s recommendation. The ribs were accompanied by a coleslaw, also made in-house. The combination more than met my expectations. I appreciate meaty ribs that are cut evenly so that they are easy to pull apart and eat. I also appreciated that Chez Bubba’s ribs are dry roasted and smoked. The barbecue sauce is served on the side and to the diner’s taste. The pork is lean and perfectly flavored, moist and smoked to perfection, and the coleslaw crunched with fresh flavor and flooded my mouth with a perfectly balanced vinegar and cream dressing recalling traditional North Carolina coleslaws.
My enthusiasm for the barbecue pit may mislead you as the Chez Bubba menu also presents 14 creative sandwiches including unique and delicious vegetarian choices — the vegetarian Philly, Fiesta Grilled Cheese, and a Gourmet Grilled Cheese. I noticed that customers at nearby tables ordered the Double Jack Chicken, grilled chicken glazed with homemade Jack Daniels sauce and topped with crumbled bacon and pepper jack cheese, and grilled chicken breast with a side of sweet potato fries.
Entrees, burgers, baskets and kid’s meals, fountain drinks, specialty drinks, craft beers on tap, fun drinks and wine add to the extensive and carefully selected choices to enhance the dining experience at Chez Bubba.
I’m now a loyal Chez Bubba fan and many times when I’m speaking with friends about favorite foods in rural Nebraska (and I often do) I hear myself echoing Tom’s enthusiasm for Chez Bubba’s barbecue and hamburgers and creative sandwiches. Based on my admiration for their food and hospitality, I scheduled a Rural Foodies interview to meet chef and co-owner Matt Howe.
The Chez Bubba concept
“We grind our own hamburger from the sirloin of beef, and we develop creative combinations for our sandwiches and are inventive with the menu,” he said.
Chez Bubba features Texas style barbecue, which means a dry rub is used. “My grandparents were from West Texas and were excellent cooks, and they introduced me to west Texas style barbecue,” Matt said. “They were my guides. I’m otherwise a self-taught chef.”
For customers who prefer barbecue with sauce, diners may choose the Chez Bubba Nebraska style barbecue and have it your way, with sauce or without. Diners select from the Chez Bubba home style, a sweet barbecue sauce made in-house, or a spicier sauce, Grandma Foster’s, a National award-winning sauce developed in Nebraska and produced in Omaha.
“We goof around with sauces and are currently experimenting with a sauce that we call Dr. Rib sauce, made from Dr. Pepper in combination with spices and other ingredients,” Howe said. “And we welcome customer feedback.”
Connection to local food began with a childhood on the farm
Howe’s experience growing up on a farm in northwest Kansas inspires the fresh and high quality menu choices he serves up at Chez Bubba Café.
“We primarily were grain farmers, and tended a large apple orchard, a vegetable garden, and raised hogs and chickens.” Matt said. “My mother worked nights in the hospital as a registered nurse and my dad was farming so my two brothers and I cooked meals for ourselves and the family. With our West Texas grandparents as our guide, we learned to cook by trial and error.”
When selecting his college coursework, Howe’s focus was far from food. He graduated from Kansas State University with a Bachelor’s of Agronomy and with a secondary major in Natural Resource and Environmental Science. He also earned a Master’s Degree from K-State in Agricultural Economics. Matt and his wife, Julie, met at Kansas State University where Julie graduated with an engineering degree.
After college, Howe worked as a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill in the United States Senate for Senator Pat Roberts from Kansas and later for the U.S. Senate Budget Committee under former Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.
The path from politics to barbecue pit
I was curious how the Howe family got from McClean, Virginia, and the intoxicating beltway politics to Goehner, Nebraska, and Chez Bubba Café.
“We were living in McClean, and we were planning our family when we began talking and thinking about moving to my wife’s home place, a farm in Seward County, Nebraska,” Howe said. “We considered the small-town life more conducive to family life and healthy living.”
The turning point occurred one evening after Matt and Julie returned from a dinner date. They turned onto their cul de sac in their quiet genteel neighborhood in McClean. “Police were surrounding the house next door to ours, lights were flashing and a medi-vac helicopter was hovering over the house,” Howe said. “We learned that a shooting recently took place and two people were seriously injured, one being our neighbor. The neighbor and one of the shooters were being lifted into the medi-vac as we watched.”
The family moved to Seward County in Nebraska and started planning the restaurant in 2008 and through 2009. “To get a handle on the economics and logistics of cafés in rural Nebraska, we visited small town restaurants across Nebraska and asked owners questions about managing a restaurant in their low population communities,” Howe said. “We gathered facts and developed a plan for a small restaurant business with a moderate number of customers, and in 2010 and 2011 we presented our plan to our banker. With support from the Goehner community and the bank, we bought a 1930s mechanics shop located on the main street of Goehner.”
They renovated it from the floor to the ceilings, and added a professional kitchen and a commercial barbecue/smoker. The polished cement floor, wood rafters, antique plank wood bar and original tin ceilings hint of its first rendition, a machine shop.
We wanted to create a café where we would want to eat
Howe says that Chez Bubba thrives today in great part because of the staff. “We want our staff involved with every aspect of the business,” he said. “All servers are trained to work in the kitchen to get a feel for the kitchen and knowledge of the smoker located on a cement slab within two steps of the kitchen door.
“We encourage staff to come up with one new idea to improve the business,” he added. Recently they created a special menu item, the J&J Chicken Salad and named it in honor of Chez Bubba’s regular customers, Jim and Jane, who helped design the salad and now order it often.
Chez Bubba hires well, and the turnover is low. “We want Chez Bubba to be a fun place to work,” Howe said.
Goehner is located eleven miles from Seward, a town with a population of 7, 120, and 24 miles from York, population 8,000. In rural Nebraska travel time is equal in minutes to miles. Howe said that Julie’s commute to her work at Hi-Core in Lincoln, the Nebraska state capitol with a population of 269,000 takes less time than commutes by some Hi-Core employees who live in Lincoln. Due to the convenient commute between Goehner and Lincoln, a housing development in Goehner is drawing people who work in Lincoln.
Something for everyone brings people from miles around
Howe and his business partner, Jeff Schoepf advertise their comedy nights, local musicians, the beer garden and other events in the York, and Seward newspapers, Nebraska Public Radio, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The University of Nebraska home games draw football fans coming or leaving the game, and Chez Bubba advertises on a billboard on eastbound I-80.
“The seed company business is huge in Seward County,” Howe said. “The companies bring in groups of buyers from Brazil, the University of Iraq, agriculture leaders, implement dealers.
“We host motorcycle clubs,” he said. “Nights and weekends, our customers drive from York, Grand Island, Lincoln. We don’t care about the dress code: irrigation boots or suits, we serve our customers.”
Chez Bubba is also developing a prosperous catering business. “Currently, we travel with the catering as far as people will pay – Hampton, Norfolk, Lincoln, York, Friend, Seward,” Howe said. “We cater at the craft beer breweries and wineries in the region.” Odell Brewery and Lazy Horse Vineyard are a few of those local breweries and wineries.
In addition, Howe and the enterprising creative staff are developing an outdoor beer garden atmosphere to extend the restaurant in the spring, summer, and fall. “Our goal is to make Goehner a tourist destination,” said Howe. “We want people who consider Nebraska a flyover state to pause, stop in, listen, talk, eat and enjoy the moments.”