FLORENCE, Ore. — "Oliver J." of Seattle was traveling through the City of Rhododendrons last spring and stopped at the Cactus BBQ & Grill restaurant on the advice of a friend.
"We were certainly happy we did," Oliver wrote on yelp.com in June. "The welcome was warm, the food came fast, it smelled great on the way back to the hotel and the pulled pork, especially, was 'outstanding.'?"
"I wish we had tried the chili," Oliver wrote. "If we lived here, we would go there often."
But not unless Tom Benson can scrape together enough money to reopen the restaurant, which shut its doors on Dec. 31. To that end, Benson is employing an unusual tactic suggested by a customer and that other customers are getting behind. He's asking them to come up with enough money to get him started again, and keep him going through the winter. He'll pay them back in half-priced food.
Winters are tough for restaurants along the Oregon Coast. Tourist traffic dries up after Labor Day — "It's kind of a like a faucet that only runs during the summer," Benson said.
And, without a steady stream of local customers to keep the venture alive, restaurants fold. But it takes time to build up that base of loyal local customers who keep eateries alive during the off-season. And Benson opened Cactus BBQ on April 1, less than a year ago.
He opened it for four reasons: "I'm 60, I'm fat, I'm unemployed and I know food," he said.
He retrofitted the former Taco Time restaurant on U.S. Highway 101 — handling much of the work himself in exchange for reduced rent — and opened Cactus.
Summer went well. The tourists came, and slowly but surely, Benson began to build a local clientele. But to get a "full" roster of locals takes three years, he said, as word of mouth spreads.
By the time winter hit, Benson couldn't pay his bills, and decided to close. That's when a customer, a business consultant, offered an idea.
"He said, 'You've got to look outside the box,'" Benson said.
The idea was this: Benson needs about $20,000 to reopen and make it until this summer. If 100 customers pitched in $200 each, he could repay them with half-off food.
"I didn't think much of it at the time, but I ran it by the people who were in the restaurant," Benson said. "Six of the eight tables said 'Oh yeah, we'll do it.'"
Since then, he's gotten 35 people to sign up, offering pledges that he'll collect only if he gets to 100.
Among those who've pledged is Joshua Greene, a longtime friend of Benson's, an Old Town business owner and Port of Siuslaw commissioner.
"I like the idea," Greene said. "It's like a scholarship, in a way."
Greene said he signed up partly to help his friend and partly because he wants to be able to eat at the Cactus.
"The food's delicious, fantastic," he said. "It's freshly made, all from scratch, his own ingredients. He mixes his own rubs, makes his own sauces."
But will the plan work? Paying back all those locals will cut into Benson's profits this summer, and when winter rolls around, he'll likely see the traffic die down again, just like it did this year.
But he believes another season would give him enough time to recruit enough of a local following to make it through next winter.
"My clientele is going to grow, and it's been growing steadily," he said. "We have a lot of locals who love the place."
Whether they love it enough to invest $200 a pop will determine whether Cactus BBQ survives.
Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com