Rico's Public House
The Legend of Pullman!
Meet Tawny Szumlas: Pullman Resident, Drink Expert!, Die-Hard Astrology Geek, Small Business Owner, Entrepreneur, Weekend Basketball Champion, Italian Food Connoisseur
An interview by Andreas Gross
Photography by Frida Gross
Date of Interview: 5/26/2020
Hi Tawny – wow! I can’t believe it’s really you: the woman, the myth, the legend – and all that good stuff! Thank you very much for availing yourself to this interview today. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to hear from Tawny Szumlas today, owner of the long-time legendary Pullman landmark Rico’s Public House in downtown Pullman. This interview will be published in the Second Edition of The Pullmanic – Promoting Pullman!, the semi-annual newsletter associated with The City of Pullman Portal, as well as in the Meet The Entrepreneurs section of Biz Opp Empire – promoting inspiration, ideas, and innovation within the realm of small business, freelance, and entrepreneurship!.
Without any further ado, Tawny, let’s go ahead and jump into things here. We want to know all about you and Rico’s, even though we know we’ll probably just barely scratch the surface of things in our time together today. Let’s talk a little about you first. Tell us about yourself, will you? You know, where you’re from, how you came to Pullman, how you got involved with Rico’s, that kind of stuff...
Hi Andreas, the woman, the myth, the legend, huh? Ha, ha! Well, thank you for having me today. I’m happy to do this interview. About myself...well, I am a 6th generation Pullmanite. My family arrived in Pullman following the Civil War. The Neill Family – that’s my line – didn’t take to farming like most people who settled in the Palouse, instead they became business entrepreneurs, bankers, and realtors. In 1980 my father took over the Pullman institution of Rico’s Smokehouse Pub. After High School, I attended WSU and graduated with a degree in Hospitality Management, at which time I followed in my father’s footsteps and worked at Rico’s. I bought the family business 5 years ago. I live in Pullman, just like my family has for generations, with my three kids and husband.
Right after the Civil War – this is pretty cool: we’re talking to a real founding family member of Pullman right now! But your family line didn’t actually found Rico’s, right? Let’s talk a bit about that.
Yes, my family was early on the scene in Pullman, but we did not found Rico’s. E.W. Thorpe opened what was to become Rico’s in 1909. Originally located at the intersection of Main and Kamiaken, his establishment primarily provided tobacco products. However, beverages and meals were also available for the nearly all male clientele who gathered for a game or two of pool or cards.
In 1911 the City of Pullman adopted Prohibition under local option, which closed all saloons within the city limits, even though it was not until January 1919 that the ratification of the 18th amendment made the sale of beverage alcohol unlawful nationwide. The 18th Amendment took effect on January 16th, 1920, when the Volstead Act provided federal enforcement of Prohibition and banned any beverage containing more than .5% alcohol
Thorpe’s establishment, which had already successfully changed to a Prohibition economy, was virtually unaffected, and by 1927 Thorpe needed a larger facility. He moved the Smokehouse farther up Main Street to the former site of the Liberty Theatre, near the intersection of Grand Avenue, where it stands today. The Liberty Theatre moved across Grand Avenue, becoming the Cordova Theatre.
Shortly after relocating the Smokehouse, Thorpe’s health began to fail and it became increasingly difficult for him to manage the business. Merle Ebner purchased the establishment in 1928, one year before the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929. The Smokehouse survived both Prohibition and the Depression that followed Black Thursday on the strength of its house specialty, “Smokehouse Milkshakes,” which literally sold by the thousands.
As the nation’s extreme economic hardship increased under the strain of higher living costs and lower consumer wages, the attitude toward Prohibition began to change. In 1932, the Volstead Act was amended to permit the sale of light wine and beer. Shortly after this change, The Smokehouse began to serve beverage alcohol, two years prior to the establishment of the Washington State Liquor Control Board.
In 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment to The Constitution repealed the Eighteenth Amendment and delegated authority to regulate the sale of beverage alcohol to the individual states. By 1934, the state legislature had authorized and established the Washington State Liquor Control Board. The Smokehouse, which had begun serving alcohol under the provisions of the amended Volstead Act, was granted, and still maintains, Pullman’s FIRST Beer and Wine License granted under State Authority. Since that time, our bartenders have poured more than 9,000,000 servings of lagers and fine ales.
By 1947, Tony Talirico acquired an interest in the Smokehouse, and a regular customer of his christened the new owner “Rico,” a nickname alluding to a minor underworld figure of that era. Tony’s vision of the Smokehouse was that of a true public house. He added a women’s restroom and employed foreign and graduate students’ wives, which he hoped would encourage the transition to an establishment that served the whole community. Tony sold the Smokehouse in 1977.
After a few intermittent owners, Roger Johnson purchased the Smokehouse in 1980 after it had slipped into a dilapidated condition. Roger officially changed the name of the business to Rico’s Smokehouse to honor Tony and proceeded to turn the business into what it is seen today. Changes included putting the first micro-brews on tap in Pullman, re-modeling the building in 1988, adding liquor, and opening the establishment back up to minors during the daytime. Rogers’s changes were well received and Rico’s Smokehouse continues to be a place where neighbors and friends meet for conversation, food, and drink. Rico’s is a home for anyone who wants it. We welcome students, graduate students, professors, local business people, and anyone else looking for a good time at PULLMANS GATHERING PLACE!
Pullman’s legendary gathering place indeed! What a story, Tawny! Pullman’s very first Beer and Wine License granted under State Authority – yes, we are talking legend here indeed! So, how exactly is Rico’s registered today? You know, for our entrepreneur readers who are interested in the nuts and bolts of this kind of stuff.
Rico’s is a LLC. We have a restaurant/beer/wine/liquor license.
We’ve heard the history of it, but tell us why Rico’s Public House is so cool now, today. What keeps Rico’s the cool, hip, happening “thing” in Pullman year after year? Com’on, don’t be shy here – give us the extended sales pitch and don’t hold back! We want to hear it! Why should a resident or visitor to Pullman go to Rico’s Public House and what can they expect to find when they go there?
Rico’s is a throw-back to a bygone era. No cell phones are needed to entertain you. We have arcade games – including Ms. Pacman, pool tables, board games, books, and live jazz and blues in the nighttime. In addition, we host open mic and live trivia. We will pour you a beer or serve you a high-end classic cocktail. We ask that you not be in a hurry – the best things in life should never be rushed, you know! Our menu is American, and ranges from Pullman’s Best Hamburger, sandwiches, and fried fish, to salads. On a Friday you can drink with us ‘til 2 AM and get back up at 9 AM and join us for breakfast and a Bloody Mary.
A Bloody Mary with Saturday morning breakfast – now you’re talking my language! Now, I know you know the whole town, Tawny, but let’s pretend there might be someone in Pullman you don’t know – or someone new moves to town. As a small business owner in Pullman, WA, and as an individual, what kinds of people are you looking to network with?
I can mix and mingle with a variety of crowds and people, but restaurant and hospitality managers and owners would be the main people I would be looking to network with in a business sense, specifically.
Tell us a little bit about the challenges, will you? What aspect(s) of running Rico’s Public House present the greatest challenges to you?
Well that’s a good question. I would have to say learning to manage people.
You know, Tawny, as an individual with a “day job” in a leadership position in an elementary school, I couldn’t agree with you more! There is definitely a learning curve when it comes to managing people – it’s all about finding that sweet spot. What about the flip side? What aspect(s) of running Rico’s Public House give you the greatest joy and personal rewards?
That would be working with and serving people.
You certainly are a “people person” and a socialite, which is good fit personality for someone in the service industry, as I know myself from my own life in education! How does running Rico’s Public House help you grow and channel your energy as a person?
It takes a lot of energy to run a small business – and I am the sort of person who isn’t happy if they aren’t moving, so Rico’s is perfect for me. My “every day” is constantly changing, and the job is always different.
Spring boarding off that same question, do you have any words of wisdom you would be willing to offer to others looking to go down this same track in life or looking to get into this or something similar, like running a bar or a small business in Pullman or small-town U.S.A. in general?
The best advice I can give is: Be ready to work!
And what can you tell us about life in Pullman? You know, apart from work and business and those kinds of things.
We affectionately refer to Pullman as being in the “Palouse Bubble” – life in the outside world just doesn’t affect Pullman. It’s a wonderfully slow pace of life, however it is boring for people aged 12-21 if they aren’t involved in an extracurricular. Football season and Fall are my favorites! Spring can be rainy - but as always, rain leads the way for Nature’s beauty.
I think most of all I love living in a town where everyone knows me and I know everyone.
Ah yes, the “Palouse Bubble” – Pullman certainly is its own little world in many regards, and I totally mean that in a good way. Do you have any special stories about our little “Palouse Bubble” you’d care to share?
My dad grew up in a little house built by his dad, and all he wanted was to leave Pullman – he even succeeded in making it to Alaska circa 1977. But his wife wanted to be close to her family so they came home, and in the end, he made it a whole 4 blocks from his childhood home. I also wanted to escape the boundaries of the Palouse, and made it to Southern California. After 2 years I realized that I wasn’t cut out for So Cal and headed home. As fate would have it, my grandma passed on and I bought the home that my dad grew up in – making it a whole 4 blocks from my childhood home.
Destiny, Tawny; destiny! Thank you very much for your time today. It’s been a real pleasure getting to know more about you and the rich history of Rico’s. I’m sure our readers have appreciated the tales and history as well. Before we sign off completely, though, would you mind telling us how people who are interested in learning more about Rico’s can contact you?
People can visit our website at: www.ricospub1909.com, or drop us an email at: email@example.com. And, of course, people are always welcomed – and encouraged – to simply pop in to Rico’s on Main Street during business hours and check out what’s happening.
Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Tawny Szumlas, owner of Rico’s Public House in downtown Pullman, Washington, USA. And remember, you read about it all on Biz Opp Empire – promoting ideas, inspiration, and opportunity within the realm of small business, freelance, and entrepreneurship!
Owner and Operator of Biz Opp Empire, a website by Andreas Philip Gross Enterprises
International K-12 Educator,