Ordinary food done extraordinarily well
From the website: The original Range Café was started in 1992 by Tom Fenton and Matt DiGregory in Bernalillo, N.M., in a funky, 56-seat former gas station. In 1995 the original building was destroyed by a devastating fire. In 1996 the Range Café opened in its current location and has been serving up “ordinary food done extraordinarily well” ever since. The original location also features Home at The Range gift shop with lots of locally produced cool stuff you don’t really need. With a full bar and live free music in the Lizard Rodeo Lounge, the Range in Bernalillo is a great destination spot.
That was the beginning. Since then, Home on the Range, Inc., led by CEO Matt DiGregory, has opened four additional locations of the Range Café in Albuquerque, as well as two other concepts, Standard Diner and Freight House Kitchen + Tap. He said recently at a Las Vegas Rotary meeting, he is looking forward to bringing the Range Café to the Plaza Hotel, and a different but equally unique restaurant to the Castaneda Hotel when construction there is complete. In this Q&A he talks about what locals can expect in the way of cuisine and dining experience at the Range Café in the Plaza Hotel.
ORP: Did you always want to be in the restaurant business?
Matt: I never wanted to be in the restaurant business! As a matter of fact, at age 15 my first job was a dishwasher and I swore I’d never work in another restaurant ever again! That all changed when, after a stint in film school in Los Angeles, I decided to move to New Mexico. My brother was about to open the Prairie Star restaurant in an old adobe mansion in the middle of nowhere in Bernalillo. I knew I could get a job so I made the move and became a waiter. That was 30 years ago. Over the next six years I became a bartender, pastry chef and manager before realizing I loved the restaurant business and knew I had to open my own restaurant.
ORP: What do you enjoy most about the business, front end, back end or management?
Matt: At this point, what I love most about the business is that it allows me to be creative when I design a new space. None of our locations looks exactly like the others. They have all been in old funky buildings. They have all provided unique challenges to make them work. So far, the Plaza is no different! For every great idea, we’re hit with one good reason why we can’t do something, so it’s been like fitting square pegs in round holes. What I appreciate most is that once a new location is finished we get to hire lots of new people, and then serving our guests something more than just a meal.
ORP: What will set the Range at the Plaza apart from other eateries in Las Vegas?
Matt: I don’t think our goal is to set ourselves apart from the other eateries in Las Vegas. Our hope is to complement the other businesses in town. I hope our reputation gets people to come to Las Vegas from off the freeway and discover this great little town. I hope they end up staying at the hotels and enjoying the other restaurants and shops in the area.
ORP: Why here, why now?
Matt: You know, it’s interesting, 20 years ago my mom wanted to see Las Vegas. She was moving back to New Mexico (she had moved from Albuquerque in the early ‘50s), and wanted to see it. She loved historic towns. So, we came. She said, “It’s 20 years too soon!” Ten years ago, I came back with a friend to see what was going on and said, “Still not there…” When the Plaza and Castaneda projects were presented to me I came back and looked around and could see there was a change happening in the town. The store fronts along Bridge Street and around the Plaza were no longer boarded up. I saw lots of new businesses and it just felt right. The big draw, however, was the Castaneda. I am a huge Fred Harvey fan. When I walked into that ghost of a hotel, it immediately intrigued me. When I saw the original bakery was still there, with the original equipment, it was like Mr. Harvey’s ghost was screaming at me to come and see what I could do in that beautiful building. I love giving life to old buildings. This one deserves to be great again. It is a fantastic project and when completed it is going to shine a brand-new light on Las Vegas, NM.
ORP: What are you most looking forward to in this expansion of your restaurant business model?
Matt: I’m addicted to growth of my company. Not because of money, far from it. I truly enjoy creating jobs for people. I love that new locations offers my employees an opportunity to grow themselves. It will take a long time for the Las Vegas locations to see profit. The momentum is there. The main thing that we will generate from this experience is the confidence to open restaurants in other cities. We’ve kind of maxed out the potential in Albuquerque. Las Vegas is 100 miles from our home base so we’ll be able to figure out what does and doesn’t work as we expand our company in the future.
ORP: What do you most want diners to know about the Range at the Plaza?
Matt: I know we are going to be perceived as an outsider. Las Vegas is a very tight knit community. When we opened the Range Café in Bernalillo in 1992 we were the outsiders. It took several years for people to accept us as locals. I just hope people know we plan to be participants in the community. Our main goal is to provide a clean, comfortable restaurant for our guests as well as our employees. We pride ourselves on great hospitality. We really work hard on this aspect. When you come to dine at the Range Café at the Plaza you will get a great meal that has been made from scratch and served with great hospitality.
ORP: How would you describe the Range Café brand?
Matt: I despise corporate chain restaurants. So many of them expand to other cities and they don’t take the time to get to know the town. They don’t make any adjustments to suit the needs of where they have planted their feet. Now that we are about to open our eighth and ninth locations I guess we are sort of becoming one! So, I guess I’d describe the Range Café as an “un-chain”. We try very hard to be consistent with what we serve to our guests, and how we serve our guests. Yet, each of our locations is very individual. We try to make every location unique and different.
ORP: Will you change the décor to reflect the style of locations in Bernalillo and Albuquerque, and if so, what will that look like?
Matt: We know that we need to take into consideration the historical elements of The Plaza. Over the 100+ years the Plaza has existed, it has gone through several re-incarnations to bring it into modern day. I am having to be diligent in not going too crazy. I suppose you could say that this one is going to be “Range Lite!”
The biggest transformation is going to be in the lobby with the addition of a coffee/pastry bar. We will be adding an ice cream soda fountain as well as espresso drinks, danishes, cinnamon rolls, etc.
In the bar, we are bringing back the name “Byron T’s” after the resident ghost of the Plaza Hotel. We have all new furniture coming, upgrades to the TV’s, some paint, ceiling fans and light fixtures. We are adding a community table with some table games.
In the dining room, we are adding new light fixtures, new tables and chairs. The vintage place mats have been a big hit in the past. We are incorporating that idea into the new table tops. Chairs have been a challenge. It’s easy to get any old chair, but we’ve been scouring catalogs and the internet trying to find a modern Victorian chair that fits The Plaza and that has been harder to find than I had anticipated. Those tables and chairs will be three to four months out before they are ready.
If you’ve been to any of our locations of the Range Cafe you’ll see artwork from an artist named Roger Evans. He is the man responsible for all of the three-dimensional artwork and murals. Roger is creating a special piece for the lobby and I can’t wait to see it. He’s now 86 years old and it is just amazing what he comes up with! It’s always a surprise.
ORP: How do you describe the cuisine at the Range Café?
Matt: Our tag line has always been “Ordinary food, served extraordinarily well”. The Range Café started by taking, basically, fine dining quality food and serving it in a very funky cafe. We’ve tried to maintain this as we’ve grown and expanded. We will offer some New Mexican items, some comfort food items, homemade desserts and pastries and creative specials.
ORP: How do you plan to incorporate fresh locally grown foods into your food offerings?
Matt: As we grow into our new shoes in Las Vegas, and as we get to know the local growers, we always hope to use locally produced foods. This has become more difficult lately with current food regulations. We cannot serve any food that is not grown or harvested by someone who doesn’t have a commercial food growers license. Our intent, as well as Allan Affeldt’s, is to always try and use whatever we can to support locally produced goods.
ORP: What would you like to say to readers to encourage them to dine at the Range at the Plaza?
Matt: Our hope is that we are a welcome business in Las Vegas and that everyone comes to try us out. We strive for a long, prosperous future in Las Vegas. The Castaneda will be the icing on the cake, which will be made from scratch!
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