Spotlight on Pawhuska
Pioneer Woman Mercantile brings big boost to small town
“There’s a guest who wants to buy the drinking glass...”
It’s not a phrase commonly heard at a restaurant, unless that restaurant is the Pioneer Woman Mercantile in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Now heading into its ninth month of business, the retail spinoff of “Pioneer Woman” Ree Drummond’s prizewinning blog, books and TV presence is welcoming fanatical visitors in droves, and showing off Pawhuska while at it.
The quaint, sleepy Oklahoma town has been waking up in a big way over the past year, due in large part to the opening of the Mercantile and a wellspring of new activity bubbling up in the storefronts around it. From art galleries to handmade boutiques, by all accounts Pawhuska is officially on the map.
Situated inside a refurbished warehouse in the heart of Pawhuska, the Mercantile—like Drummond’s blog and TV persona—pays homage to all things home cooking. The country store boasts a collection of carefully curated home goods and provisions perfect for whipping up comfort food, and restaurant, bakery and deli menus to match. Traces of the prairie line the walls of the general store in the form of farmhouse art, country cookware, old-fashioned candy and classic cookbooks—an ode to the faded, storybook version of small town America.
Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond’s general store is as quirky and warm as she is, and feels like it could’ve been plucked straight out of Oklahoma’s first days of statehood. Executive Chef Kurtess Mortensen says that’s no accident.
“It needed to feel like it belonged in the building and town.”
Belong it does. The Mercantile has helped jumpstart downtown Pawhuska’s restoration, and it seems that all boats are rising with the Mercantile’s tidal wave of interest. Pawhuska now boasts three art galleries, boutique shops, several well-appointed bed and breakfasts and plenty of outfitters for those tough-to-find but oh-so-necessary rancher essentials (think boots and leather wares). Still, the Mercantile tends to be the first stop on most visitors’ agendas. Some attribute this to the Pioneer Woman’s meteoric rise to fame. Others credit the shop’s homey vibe. Either way, it seems that the little Oklahoma town might finally be seeing a return to its glory days.
“For Ladd (Ree’s husband), I think a big part of it was remembering what the town was like, and wanting to get back to that,” Mortensen says. If the crowds are any indication, get back they did. At 22,000 square feet, the Mercantile is a destination in and of itself. Guests can shop around, have a meal, then grab a cup of PW coffee, which is seed-to-cup sourced through Topeca Coffee (The Spicy Cowgirl is a decadent must). A bakery flooded with natural light makes a great book nook, and maple pecan cinnamon rolls (they bake around 800 on a given day) a perfect dessert.
The shop sees upwards of 10,000 visitors on weekends, and has welcomed guests from all 50 states—including a couple who drove an RV down from Alaska. Folks come from all over to see the stomping grounds depicted on the Pioneer Woman’s Saturday morning Food Network show, and to nab a genuine taste of small town USA (literal and figurative) and the warmth that comes with it.
“It’s a truly caring culture,” Mortensen says, “but we try not to talk about it—just live it.”
One need only look around the space to see the proof. Crowds swarm the Mercantile, but no one pushes. It’s hard to find an empty area on the ground floor, but no one seems to mind. And while lines are long and slow moving, greeters and storytellers help to pass the time quickly, and the setting encourages conversation. Shoppers show off their finds to one another, swap stories of how far they’ve traveled to reach the Pioneer Woman’s promised land, and after spending hours in line waiting on a table for lunch, it’s not uncommon to see two parties of two morph into a party of four. This, it seems, is part of the operation’s MO: Get people together, and get them visiting. Nobody promised you’d be in and out quickly, but that natural inclination to settle in and stick around for a while is half the fun.
The menus in the restaurant and bakery pull no punches, and everything served up in each is soulful, decadent, and delicious. Picture the Pioneer Woman’s famous Chicken Fried Steak, made with velvety, fork-tender, Oklahomagrown rib eye steak from Creek Stone Farms; the Marlboro Man Sandwich, pork chops with a heavy dollop of the richest buttered mashed potatoes on the side. Indeed, the Mercantile serves ribsticking food, and the Paleo-minded and butteraverse need not attend (though if you’re visiting with fussy diners, lighter options like golden beets and ginger steak salad are just as pleasing).
Drummond, who is often onsite, and Mortensen are constantly playing with new menu ideas, riffing on old favorites to create new classics and, with a menu full of seasonal dishes and local ingredients, guests should have no trouble finding a new favorite on each visit. Mortensen credits Drummond’s quirky tastes and detail-oriented vision for the Mercantile’s liveliness, along with a shared joy for coming up with new ways to entertain and be creative.
As Mortensen puts it, “Neither of us is very good at being satisfied.”
But the line for a table seeps out the Mercantile’s doors and around the building on most days, and if you find yourself too hungry to wait, Pawhuska boasts plenty of other places to strap on the feedbag. For those not down with waiting in line for two hours, there’s the grab ’n’ go option. Order hot and cold sandwiches, salads, dishes and sides from the counter, have the staff warm them up, then enjoy them outside at one of the sunny sidewalk tables. With dishes like hot-pressed paninis, meatloaf and a golden beet and goat cheese salad, the grab ’n’ go items are quick, but just as indulgent as the dishes you’ll find on the in-house menu. And with hotspots like The Cathedral of the Osage, art galleries and wine bars, small town boutiques and quaint bed and breakfasts, there’s plenty to fill a day with in Pawhuska.
Our suggestion? Make a progressive lunch out of it for the full experience.
The sweet, sticky smell of hand-drizzled cinnamon rolls wafts through the stacks of dishes and pillows down in the Mercantile general store, beckoning shoppers up the stairs to the bright, airy bakery. In truth, no one should leave the Mercantile without a cinnamon roll, and visitors need only follow their nose to find the delicacies.
Upstairs, a little girl toddles around the sunlit bakery in cowgirl boots, a cinnamon roll in one hand, a giant lollipop in the other. A sunny, smiling Pioneer Woman greets guests off to the side, signing books and posing for pictures. It’s the epitome of the Mercantile— the epitome of goodness, sweetness and fun.
Other Points of Interest
Osage Outfitters: Boutique specializing in custom boots, ranching gear, Western fashion and handmade leather wares. Visit the hat section for something classic, or branch out with something on trend. Facebook.com/OsageOutfittersPawhuska
The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve: Visitors flock from near and far to the billowy plains of Northeastern Oklahoma for a glimpse of the native, free-roaming bison herd and the world’s largest protected remnant of tallgrass prairie still in existence. Visitors can drive through and roll down their windows for pictures—just be sure to stay in the car. Nature.org
The Grandview Inn Bed & Breakfast: Owned by one of Oklahoma’s most renowned culinary talents, Executive Chef Tiffany Poe and her husband, Steven, the beautifully restored Grandview Inn hosts travelers from all over as well as private dinners and receptions. Visit their website for reservations and amazing recipes like Chicken Florentine Crepes with Hollandaise Sauce. Yes, please. GrandviewInnOklahoma.com
The Mabelle Bed & Breakfast: Established in 1922, the historic Mabelle Bed & Breakfast features lavish appointments, a steam room, stunning views of Osage County and walls covered with a carefully curated collection of art. MabelleBedAndBreakfast.com
Swinging Bridge: At nearly a century old, Pawhuska’s Swinging Bridge was once the only way into town during times of flooding. Today it serves as a fun side-stop for visitors daring enough to cross over Bird Creek on its wooden planks. You can find the rickety footbridge across from the First Baptist Church just a few blocks south of downtown.
The Prairie Dog: Marlene Mosley’s hot dog and frozen yogurt joint is just across the street from the Mercantile, and well worth a visit. The Prairie Dog uses the “weigh it and pay it” model: Build your hot dog or sundae with the fixin’s of your choice, then weigh it to see what the damage is. New visitors get a complimentary dog tag, and everyone is invited to write their pup’s name on the brick wall. Woolaroc Museum and Wildlife Preserve: A museum boasting Western and Native American art, and a 3,700-acre wildlife preserve roamed by elk, buffalo and longhorns. Woolaroc.org The Cathedral of the Osage: Beautiful Catholic church featuring stunning stained-glass depictions of native Osage peoples. CathedralOfTheOsage.Blogspot.com