Jim Robinson

Pine Echoes – Brooks Scanlon, Inc. Jan- Feb 1976


Jim Robinson – Black Butte Ranch Lodge Manager uses “team approach”

Chances are, if you dine out regularly, you will eventually run into a headwaiter that seats you somewhere between the dishwasher and the garbage disposal. Then, he will extend a size 14EEE hand and demand a tip of the same proportion.

In fact, some maitre d's seem to have been graduated with honors from the Don Rickles School of Charm. As a result, in some of the more sophisticated cities of our Republic, assaulting a maitre d' is only a class C misdemeanor.

Not so, however, at the Black Butte Ranch, where Big Jim Robinson holds forth for 10 or 11 hours per day as lodge manager.

Robinson is not above getting down in the trenches with his co-workers to cook, clear tables and tend bar. But he doesn't like to dwell on the problems he and his crew face while trying to cope with heavy summer traffic and the winter doldrums.

"They're problems but I don't like to be negative about them. We just try to get out there and do our best, regardless of the time of year or the size of the crowd," he said.

"We realize that the lodge is kind of unique in that we're a public establishment -by law- even though the Ranch is oriented toward owners rather than the general public. But no one has ever explained to me how you can tell--for sure--an owner from someone just off the highway. I try to treat everyone who comes in here just as I want to be treated when I eat out," Robinson said.

And at 6-2 and more than 245, Robinson is the first to admit he has first-hand knowledge of most Oregon restaurants. On the day of this interview, Robinson arrived in his office at the customary 11 a.m. He had worked until "only" 10 o'clock the night before. "I ran the bar here last night because Larry (Larry Sherrer, Robinson's assistant) cooked. Larry had to cook because we're short in the kitchen, since our new chef, Franz Dutzler, broke his foot while skiing. "I cut out early last night so maybe I'll cook tonight and let Larry run the bar," Robinson said.

"That's the way we do things around here," Robinson continued. "I don't believe in a restaurant operation being dominated by one person. In my experience, it doesn't work out well. You're selling two things in a restaurant, food quality and service quality.

If the people performing the service--the cooks, the busboys, the waiters, the waitresses,--if they don't feel like they're really a part of the organization, it's much harder to motivate them to quality performances. We try to do everything together here," he added.

Robinson also stresses thorough training of restaurant employees. "It's especially important for us because we do work together as a team and because the size of our staff changes so much from summer to winter," he explains.

Robinson, who has been the lodge manager since it opened in 1971, got into the food business by working part time at a Non-Commissioned Officers Club while in the army. In 1970, after managing a restaurant in Yokohama, Japan, he returned to the United States and started as a bartender at the Benton Hotel in Corvallis. He then moved to the Illahe Country Club in Salem as assistant manager before taking the Black Butte Ranch job.

Robinson got into the food and beverage business by backing out of his main interest in life--music. "I was in an Army band during the first part of my service tour. In the mid-1960's it was good duty. We would practice five or six hours a day, give a few concerts every week, and lay around on the beach at Carmel. I just got tired of all the march music after awhile and volunteered for the quartermaster corps," he said.

Robinson studied music for 11 years--primarily trumpet--and two of his instructors, Ollie Wagner and Lee Barker, played for Louis Armstrong and Kay Starr, respectively. While Robinson is now only a "listener," each of his five children plays the organ and studies music. Robinson, his wife, Valerie, and their five children, Patience, 1, Jon, 7, Duke, 12, Pixie, 13, and Kelly, 15, live at Tollgate, a Brooks Resources project near Sisters.

As to the Black Butte Ranch menu, Robinson says, "All of us on the staff make suggestions about the menu. We want to serve a limited number of items and make each one of them super. We solicit comments from the entire staff. Twenty-one minds produce better ideas then just one mind."

According to Robinson, 1968 was the turning point in the American restaurant business. "It seemed like up until then, a lot of restaurants were just 'cruising-getting along, serving average food in an indifferent manner," he said. "But things started to tighten up after that and people who ate out became more critical. That put the pressure on. We think, too, that we've put the pressure on a lot of Central Oregon restaurants by the way in which we operate," Robinson said.

"Sure, we're not perfect. Sometimes a steak will get more done than the customer likes or something like that. But we know we've got two things to offer people--quality food and quality service--and if we don't please people on those two counts, they won't come back," Robinson said.

If you are at the Ranch for dinner in the summer months, Robinson will usually be the person who asks if you have a reservation and then probably give you the bad news that if you don't have one, you'll have to wait awhile. "We've never failed to serve someone if they wanted to wait," Robinson said. "I feel just as bad as they do when I can't seat them right away." "And we really want the public but preferably with a reservation." he added.

Copyright © 2006 Sisters Country Historical Society