For Jon Schulman, relaxing is overrated. He would rather be overseeing operations at his restaurant, Buster’s, or along the water’s edge at Oak Creek, fly fishing rod in hand.
His choices seem to be working out well. It has been 30 years since Schulman and several partners started Buster’s Restaurant and Bar. The partners have gone their separate ways, but Schulman persists, serving up fresh Flagstaff favorites seven days a week.
It’s tough work, running a restaurant. Especially when part-time college students comprise most of the 65 member staff. But Schulman, who has been working around food for more than 40 years, has seen it all, and is rarely fazed.
After leaving Tucson for Northern Arizona University in 1969 and working for the campus food service, Schulman was promoted to student manager. Following graduation, his food and beverage career took him to Kalamazoo, Seattle, and Phoenix. He gained experience in many different venues, laughing about the memory of having five different W-2s in a single tax year. But the moving around ended in 1982, when Schulman’s friend and future partner learned of a restaurant property in Flagstaff.
And while Schulman does seem to appreciate the happiness his customers exude, he discourages others from following in his footsteps. “On TV they make this big production,” said Schulman, describing the abundance of cooking shows. “But it’s nothing but work. Hard work.”
And how about the title restaurateur? “No. I just call myself a worker. There is no glamour in this business,“ explained the restaurant owner, who occasionally does dishes, cooks, and works on the line where food passes before being served.
Glamour aside, Schulman’s choices are working – for his loyal customers, and for some of his employees. His team includes two people who have worked at Buster’s for 28 years and several other key employees who have been with Schulman for 11, 13 and 17 years.
That consistency in management is part of what makes Buster’s work. Employees understand that the policies and culture are solid. And customers know their favorite menu items will always be made with high quality ingredients.
“I don’t change my specs. You see that at a lot of restaurants: they downsize the product or buy a different grade of meat. To me, it’s not worth losing a customer. We run a high food cost here, but that’s what I do,” said Schulman, who only serves fresh fish and makes all soups and sauces from scratch. “When someone orders an Alfredo sauce, it’s made to order with heavy cream, butter, white wine and shallots.”
Schulman credits his mother for teaching him a thing or two about good food. He laments the microwave generation, saying many of today’s youth have grown accustomed to just okay food. “Good food isn’t fast. And fast food isn’t good. I’m a firm believer in that.”
The passage of time has brought a lot of fast food as part of the steady stream of new dining and nightspot options. The economy has also created its own set of challenges. A few years ago, Buster’s management team had to be downsized, as many consumers cut back on eating out.
Schulman hopes the economic recovery will gain momentum. In the meantime, he and his staff will continue to serve up zucchini muffins, fresh sourdough bread, and the diverse menu items offered for lunch and dinner.
“You see a lot of restaurants where the employees outlive the management. Here, the management is outliving the employees.” Schulman jokes that one day, when he is no longer able to keep such a fast pace, “they’ll just have to prop me up in the lobby.” In the meantime, you can find him briskly moving through Buster’s, as he and his team work to satisfy the next hungry customer. FBN