Former restaurant owners welcome ‘family’ at reunion

hdn-10-02-16-pg-a01Members of the group trickled into the room at the Hays Recreation Center, greeted with big hugs and laughter from Ellie and Gary Gabel of Hays. The “kids” they welcomed are former employees of the establishments they owned and operated for nearly 20 years, the Red Coat restaurant and Bijou supper club.

Diane Nance, who lives in Wichita where she works as a nurse, was one of the driving forces to put the reunion together after talking about it with the Gabels for several years. Her parents, Al and Joyce Ashmore, still live in Hays.

“It’s one of those things we’ve put off and we’re finally going to do,” she said Saturday.

The establishments were located just down Sixth Street from Picken Hall, where On the Rocks and Chuck’s are now. The Gabels entered a partnership in the Red Coat in 1980 after running a bakery on 10th Street. Shortly after, they bought out their partners and opened the Bijou in the basement.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, the Red Coat was a hot spot for lunch or just a beer, organizational meetings and Friday After Class — a pitcher of beer and platter of gizzards or mountain oysters for $4.89. Downstairs, the Bijou was more formal, the site of business dinners, fraternity and sorority formals, and Christmas and New Year’s parties. Gary ran the upstairs, Ellie the downstairs, and often they hardly saw each other until the end of the day.

And helping run both were their young employees — the cooks, dishwashers, bartenders, waiters and waitresses, many of whom were students at FHSU.

“We probably have a story for every last one of them,” Ellie said of the employees.

“I guess that’s just natural. We never had any children,” she said. “We always called them our kids. We still do.”

And for many of the former employees, the sense of family is mutual.

“They took care of us,” said Lori Rose, who traveled from Huntsville, Texas, for this weekend’s homecoming activities, including the biology department reunion. She started working at the Bijou as a bartender near the end of her junior year in 1985.

“They really cared about what happened to us and whether or not we did well at school and were very encouraging. It was a good experience.”

She said the Gabels always were willing to work around their employees’ class schedules, something she didn’t realize the importance of at the time. She is now lab coordinator for the instruction biology labs at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.

“I see students now all the time who have trouble with their classes and their course schedules and getting their academic work done because of their jobs,” she said. “Gary and Ellie were always very supportive of that with us.”

“Gary and Ellie were great to me in college,” said Rob Whalen, who worked as a cook upstairs from 1986-91. He likened Gary to a father figure. “It was so much fun working for those guys.”

Nance and many of the other former employees said they learned much about customer service that continued past college.

“I still hold a lot of the qualities I learned years ago from them in my job today as far as my work ethic,” Nance said.

But it wasn’t all hard work. There were drinks after work some nights, and the Gabels even had a summer barbecue at their home every summer for the employees.

Some even had their lives changed. Several tell stories of how Ellie and Gary helped employees learn money management skills that helped them pay for school.

Melanie Armbruster even found her husband.

In 1991, she was in Russell, working in a clothing store when she assisted Ellie with her shopping.

“If you know Ellie, she’s like a recruiter of sorts,” Armbruster said.

Ellie told her she was a great salesperson and she should work for her.

“So I quit my job and moved over there and went to work at the Bijou, and then I started working at the Red Coat, and then I lived upstairs. So it was pretty convenient,” she said with a laugh.

She worked two full-time jobs to save money for cosmetology school and now owns a salon in Ellis.

Ellie recruited Brandon Armbruster as a bartender for the Bijou when he made a visit to FHSU’s student health department, where Ellie worked as a nurse.

“We met there and got married, and this will be our 22nd anniversary this year,” Melanie Armbruster said. They live in Ellis and have three children.

Rudy Ortiz, another cook at the Red Coat, wasn’t able to make the reunion due to a work obligation where he lives in Austin, Texas, but talked about memories in a phone interview earlier in the week.

He was only 20 when he started working there, but the Gabels trusted him to open and close the restaurant many nights.

That was especially important to him, Ortiz said, because Hays was not entirely welcoming to Hispanic students at the time.

“Going to Hays was good for me because of Gary and Ellie,” he said. “By far they helped me. Financially they helped me by giving me that job. They valued me as an employee, and they really took care of me.”

The Gabels still keep in touch with many of their “kids,” and even their families. Henderson introduced her family to the Gabels when working for them, and her father or brothers sometimes still call and even visit when passing through town.

Ortiz often calls and talks to them for several hours on the phone, time filled with lots of laughter, he said.

The Gabels decided to close the Red Coat and the Bijou in 1997. Gary retired, but Ellie continued to work in student health until 2002.

Now in their 70s, the Gabels still keep busy. They stick close to their home, which they built in Prairie Acres before they were married, and appreciate after so many years of long days at the restaurants.

“After spending 20 years away from home, we love our home,” Gary said. He has a large garden he tends and the couple cans the produce — over 100 jars of pickles alone this year, along with homemade spaghetti sauce, salsa and sauerkraut. In keeping with their ever-present generosity, they share much of it with friends and family.

In 1993, they bought Ellie’s family farm in Gove County. They enjoy spending weekends there or at their cabin at Cedar Bluff — where, they say, their neighbors are also like their kids — or with nieces and nephews.

“They took care of business, and they took care of their employees. I am forever thankful for what they have done,” Ortiz said.

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