In a brutally turbulent retail environment where businesses come and businesses go, the Knotty Pine has stood the test of time since 1970.
Knotty Pine owner Barb Pilcher is the type of person who would gladly share the secrets of her store’s success over the previous five decades, but it would be extremely difficult to put into words.
And even if Pilcher could convey the store’s exact formula for longevity in a nice, neat nutshell, any duplication of that success, at least as it has occurred at the Knotty Pine, would be an absolute impossibility.
“I don’t know if you would call it success,” Pilcher modestly said of her store. “I think it has been more like survival, at times. But fifty years has gone so fast.”
The Knotty Pine formula for success
Over the years, the Knotty Pine has gained a well-deserved reputation for old-fashioned ice cream, malts and shakes, sloppy joes, also referred to as “Yum-Yum burgers,” and fresh egg and tuna salads. In recent years, however, Pilcher’s espresso milk shakes have become all the rage.
“It used to be Folgers and Maxwell House, and now it’s lattes and cappuccinos,” Pilcher said of her coffee. “Customers love our coffee, but I don’t really think that’s the biggest reason they keep coming back.”
To fully understand exactly why customers keep coming back to the Knotty Pine requires a quick historical journey back to the 1950s. In about 1956, when construction of Roberts Tunnel began, crews working on the tunnel often frequented the location, which, at the time, was a bar offering live music, billiards and a dance floor.
By most local accounts, the bar got pretty rowdy at times. In fact, for that very reason, the establishment lost its liquor license in the late 1950s and became a dry goods store.
In the early 1960s, the Knotty Pine began catering primarily to summertime tourists and cabin-dwellers, and continued in that capacity throughout the decade.
In 1970, Bill and Beth Peterson, Pilcher’s parents, decided to purchase the Knotty Pine. Bill had previously worked at Safeway for 15 years, and he spent that time diligently saving to eventually buy his own business.
Once the Knotty Pine transaction was complete, the Petersons moved into a house very near the store and began sinking all their energy into the business.
“My dad was always here in the store, as was my mom,” Pilcher recalled. “My mom was meticulous about the homemade food and pies she sold, and my dad was the type who always went above and beyond to help customers, and people in general, any way he could. A lot of times we ate at the store as a family, so customers had whatever the Petersons were having for dinner.”
Pilcher said her mom’s list of homemade pies included peach, cherry, apple, blueberry, lemon meringue, banana cream, and an assortment of others.
And Pilcher should know, because she was almost always at the store.
“I grew up in this store,” Pilcher said. “I literally started working here at the age of five.”
On her 16th birthday, and with 10 years of Knotty Pine tenure already behind her, the Petersons purchased a dishwasher for the store.
“That was an amazing birthday present,” Pilcher said with a chuckle. “I was honestly elated after all those years of hand-washing dishes.”
Little did the Petersons know at that time, that same 16-year-old would pick up the Knotty Pine ownership mantle in 1993 and carry it proudly for the better part of three decades and beyond.
“I went to college for two years, and also worked as a bank teller for two years,” Pilcher said. “But every time I got the chance, during summers, on holidays, and any other time I could find, I was back at the store.”
“I think I’m a lot like my dad, and I have his passion for serving customers and helping people when I can,” Pilcher said while fighting back tears. “I think his spirit lives on through the store in a lot of ways.”
At last, the Knotty Pine formula, and the uniquely complex and personal nature of that formula, begins to take shape.
A nostalgic celebration
Throughout the days following Christmas, Pilcher and her sister Bonnie Logan worked feverishly in preparation for a Knotty Pine 50th Anniversary party that was held Jan. 2.
The two sisters also exhibited some of the Knotty Pine’s antique cooking and ice-cream-making items, which brought back a bevy of fond memories for those in attendance. A slide show commemorating years gone by, as well as heaping helpings of the Knotty Pine’s legendary Yum Yum burgers, were part of the festivities.
“We plan to leave everything out for display for a week or so after the party, so everyone is welcome to come on by and take a look,” Logan said.
Knotty Pine nostalgia is by no means limited to anniversary parties. Any time sisters Barb and Bonnie get together, the store’s 50-year history prompts lively discussions that begin with “remember when.”
“Do you remember when a college kid from Fort Collins who had been to a party slid off the road, was stuck here overnight, and you let him sleep here in the store?” Bonnie asked Barb.
“Yes,” Barb said. “I remember calling Sheriff Wegener and telling him I had the kid in the store, and he came out and told the kid he could stay but he had to behave. It went fine, and the kid left the next day.”
Bonnie also recalled a day many years ago when she was tending the store and had trouble with an adding machine. The incident was traumatic at the time, but she laughs today when telling the story.
“I was trying to pull a piece of paper out of the adding machine and it clamped down on my finger,” she said. “I could not get it off. There was a sheriff and a plumber in the store at the time, and the plumber grabbed a pair of pliers and managed to bend it back from my finger. We still have the machine.”
About the people
In the end, history, and the history of the Knotty Pine specifically, boils down to the people and personalities that have woven the fabric of its ongoing story. For example, Pilcher estimates that hundreds of Platte Canyon-area high school students have been employed there through the years.
“I can’t even guess how many kids have worked here,” she said. “I have had very good luck with them, and the majority of them were really good kids and good employees. They have all been a part of the Knotty Pine’s success.”
That extra personal touch – a way of doing business that genuinely focuses on serving the community, and the people and families within the community – seems to be the constant thread that has set the Knotty Pine apart for 50 years.
“Mom and Dad used to pick a family they thought could use some help every year and deliver a bunch of food to them at Christmas,” Logan said. “They enjoyed doing that.”
Customers, both local and otherwise, flock to the Knotty Pine for a variety of reasons. It’s obvious they love the ice cream, milk shakes and malts. Pilcher’s exotic coffee concoctions and handmade salads are probably enough to generate and sustain business in and of themselves. Some Knotty Pine customers might also be drawn to the nostalgia, or the history of the place.
But of course, the survival of the Knotty Pine has never hinged entirely on food and beverage ingredients, the type of merchandise sold, or even the building’s rich history. Those factors have evolved considerably over the years, while business and customer loyalty has remained constant.
To that point, Bonnie added one critical piece to the puzzle by articulating what little sister Barb is way too modest to ever mention.
“People come here a lot just to visit with Barb,” her sister said. “They come here to sit at the bar and talk with her about what’s on their mind. It’s a great place to do that, and Barb is a great listener who likes people and truly understands customer service. That is a huge reason why people like coming here.”
A likely possibility is that customers recognized and appreciated all those same qualities in Bill and Beth Peterson before they handed the reins over to their ace dishwasher some 27 years ago.
Those are the things that make the Knotty Pine special, and that’s exactly why its unique brand of success could never quite be duplicated.