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John Pickerel, of the Buckhorn Steakhouse, is an anchor of Winters’ commerce and tourism. He grew up in a cowboy family, and looks the part. He was in his early sixties when we met him in Winters but appeared much younger: compact, lean with a full head of sandy hair and a goatee. It’s easy to believe that he was a wrestler in high school and college. He spent his childhood in the upper Mountain West—Idaho, Montana, eastern Washington, and Oregon—where his father was a rodeo bull rider, then a cattle buyer, then a feedlot operator, then a longhaul livestock trucker, among other pursuits. Pickerel was introduced early to the world of livestock, and to the practicalities of how to make farming-related business pay off. “I’d ride with my dad on these long drives, like between Spokane and Montana, and he would tell me all his ideas about business,” Pickerel told me, as he led a walking tour of the storefronts near his restaurant. “He would say, ‘John, it’s not about how you sell the cows but how you buy the cows.” He’d explain how you needed to think about quality and cost.” Ever since then, Pickerel said, he has viewed the commercial landscape around him as an endless series of puzzles. He hears of a new store opening up in town and immediately thinks, Show me where the customers will come from. Show me how you’re going to make it? He visits a bar or restaurant anywhere else and thinks, What makes it worth customers coming here? Pickerel asked himself the same questions when he arrived in Winters in 1980, in his late twenties. By then, he had already started a restaurant in a larger nearby town. “I decided to open a restaurant in Winters because I’d heard this was a place that people would actually travel to, if you gave them a good reason,” he told me. “But when I came here,” he said, “I could see the bones, and the charm—and I’d heard that people actually enjoyed driving to Winters.” Driving west from Sacramento or Davis, or east from the vast Bay Area, much of the ride would be on relatively quiet roads through orchards or between hillsides and valleys. “So I thought, what if the drive itself added value to the experience they had? And making the experience of the restaurant something they would value and come back for?” Pickerel said that hsi rule of thumb was, you need to have two hours; worth of activity, for each hour it take customers to get there. “That’s been my mantra for every day since then, how can we add value that makes this trip to this place worthwhile.” For Pickerel, that value came from the now-popular cut of meat known as the “Char Roasted Tri Tip” that he claims originated at the Buckhorn in the 1980s. Pickerel’s business success has spread far beyond Winters. By the late 1990s, he had opened Buckhorn Grills in ten other cities, while still basing himself in Winters. In 2009, two of his Tri Tip Grills opened in New York, in Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Station. (I asked myself, how can you offer something that New Yorkers don’t already have? I thought the answer would be tri-tip.”) Pickerel emphasized a theme we’d heard before in pleas as different as Holland and Eastport and Sioux Falls and Duluth and Redlands, and that would recur through our travels to come. That was the power of local loyalties, local attachments, a sense of belonging and rightness in being on a part of the earth you felt was home. Pickerel’s own life (and the lives of many others we met in Winters) turned out to be such an example. Pickerel had been ready to move back to his original home of Montana by the 1990s, “but I met the love of my life,” who was from a larger town near Winters, and “this is where she wanted to be.” In the next generation, their own children couldn’t wait to get to bigger cities after finishing high school in rural Winters. “But they have come back to Winters, they’re invested in town, it’s where they love,” he said. “That’s the best way to measure the sustainability of a town like ours—when young people come back, with education and experience, and add a twist to what we are doing. The kids come back, they bring their ‘A Game,’ they see that there are possibilities here.”]]>

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