HAWK SPRINGS – Episode 6 of season 17 of the Food Network’s “Restaurant Impossible” featuring The Emporium restaurant in Hawk Springs opens just like you think it would.
The camera focuses on a wind mill followed by a few horses grazing in a field off U.S. Highway 85. Producers top the scene off with some tall grass that fades to focus on the sign that reads “Hawk Springs, Population 45.”
“I’m looking around as I’m driving, and there’s nothing for miles and miles and miles,” says host Robert Irvine from behind the wheel.
Irvine and his crew pulled up to Hawk Springs in “Restaurant Impossible” branded busses one mid-September weekend last year, and the episode called “Destination, Hawk Springs,” recently aired on streaming service Discovery Plus.
The plot followed the “failing restaurant” trope common to shows like this one, with owner Dennis Simmons and his daughter and part-owner, Dillon Dietzler, looking ahead to the business’ future. There’s little mention of COVID-19 during the episode, just small indicators in the face coverings and conscious social distancing.
The Simmons family has owned the restaurant for six years. Before, the building sitting on the road from Torrington to Cheyenne was a grocery store and a cafe, as indicated by pictures still hanging within the restaurant.
In an interview with the Telegram, Simmons said his business has struggled particularly during the pandemic, as a lot of his business is generated from tourists traveling through to reach regional destinations, including Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, Yellowstone and Denver.
Irvine’s goal, emphasized in the episode’s title, was to make The Emporium a destination in and of itself rather than just a pit stop. Still, Simmons sees his restaurant as “the gateway to Goshen Hole.”
“In everything we do, we want to put Hawk Springs on the map,” Simmons said. “We want it to be a destination place. That’s what they helped us identify, how to bring people in from all over.”
Irvine and his crew spent a short three days at The Emporium, working on all aspects of the restaurant: the dining room, the menu and the staff.
The change was stark, but necessary in order to give the now gray walls a needed paint job, according to Dietzler.
“It was Saturday morning, and in about 30 minutes, every single thing in this entire building was taken out, stripped,” she said.
The Emporium’s dining room, after renovations by Irvine’s crew, is a healthy union of old and new. Simmons collects and restores knick knacks and antiques that he previously displayed on a ledge surrounding the perimeter of the space. Now, most of them that were cluttered above diners are in storage next door, but there are a few pieces back in place.
There are new liquor shelves behind the bar to organize the inventory, a wagon wheel in the center of the restaurant, new light fixtures, hand crafted wooden saloon doors separating the kitchen from the dining room, new tables and newly upholstered booths.
Next to the bar is a chalkboard mural, featuring the cuts of a cow in an attempt to fit the western vibe, which both Dietzler and Simmons laughed about, saying the head better resembles a pig.
“It was kind of funny,” Dietzler said. “I think it was unique for [Irvine] to be in Wyoming, kind of a special, untouched spot.”
Simmons and Dietzler enjoyed the renovations overall, but when the network originally reached out about featuring The Emporium on their reality show, they almost said no.
“We were a little bit leery because we’re a Western atmosphere and small town and we didn’t want somebody coming in and changing it,” Simmons said. “And they respected that, we had several discussions about that they followed that.”
Simmons is happy with menu items the crew introduced, including an elk meatloaf sandwich and deep fried turkey, and they plan to reintroduce to the menu burgers and other dishes that were previously popular.
“Robert’s a hard nosed guy, but if you want to get advice, you want to get it from people who actually know what they’re talking about,” he said.
Regular customers have been supportive, with mixed opinions on the changes, Simmons and Dietzler said, but overall, as Simmons told Irvine in the episode, he wants to have a little something for everyone.
“We like to think of it as an oasis out in the middle of nowhere.”