PHOTOPHILE- Hearty sale: Ponderosa hits the trail


While it was far cry from a cattle auction, sundry restaurant owners and dealers herded into the now defunct Ponderosa Steakhouse last Wednesday eager to round up used kitchen equipment and front-of-the house goods.

"It was hot in the kitchen!" auctioneer and Richmond restaurant dealer Larry Orange says. "We made out more than we predicted. I was told that it would make right around $25,000 to $30,000."

A mere six months shy of its 20th anniversary, according to Orange, the old buffet-style eatery was filled with local restaurant notables like Kevin Kirby of the Lazy Parrot and the Mellow Mushroom's Andrew Watson and J.R. Hadley rubbing shoulders with out-of-town equipment dealers. The abandoned kitchen and vinyl dining room were filled with almost 100 people bidding on piecemeal items as varied as plasticware, green booths, and cowboy paraphernalia.

Alas, there was no sight of John Kluge, the nonagenarian billionaire and former Charlottesvillian who had the pluck to buy both restaurant chains inspired by Hoss Cartwright, the beloved 1960s television character who lived on a fictional ranch called "The Ponderosa" on a show called Bonanza.

There were fryers galore– auctioned up to near retail prices– as well as stainless steel tables and freezers. But the day's big-ticket items were two Hobart mixers, a Taylor ice cream machine, and a Manitowoc ice maker. 

"For a new ice machine, it's about $2,800– just for the top piece," Richmond restaurant dealer Dustin Smith says of the Manitowoc he lassoed for a mere $700. "This one is probably 10 years old."

Bids flew, the sweat on auctioneer Larry's forehead dripped, and prices ebbed and flowed from as little as $30 for four fire extinguishers to $1,300 for the Taylor ice cream machine. The new owner of both, Richmond restaurant dealer Mark Owens of Mobile Creations, lamented not getting the Manitowoc icer, but acknowledged the good deals he was getting.

"We buy and resell equipment for food trucks, ice cream trucks," he says of his upstart company. "I'm here for sinks, mixers, ovens. I'd like to pick up odds and ends– a hot fudge dispenser, dessert topping servers, the ice cream machine."

After the bidders milked the emptying steakhouse for all it was worth, the future for buffets looks grim, according to those in the business. 

"America is through with buffets," Smith says. 

"Buffets are hard," Orange agrees. "I've closed the Wood Grill, Western Sizzlin', Great American– all in Richmond." (Charlottesville's Wood Grill Buffet, among others, survives.)

The franchise owners of Ponderosa did not attend the auction, but according to Orange, "They want it all gone. It's either that or pay someone to haul it out or pay another month's rent." The owners originally owned the building, but after they sold it a year ago, they've been paying rent, according to Orange. 

"The owners couldn't be here to regularly manage it, so it got away from them," he says.

What's next for the restaurant niche on Pantops? The planned late August opening of a Topeka Steakhouse on the mountain could fill the needs of steak lovers. However, the building formerly housing Kluge's family-friendly buffet will remain empty for the time being, as no new business has stepped up to fill the space.

"There's some good stuff here, kind of old, but in good shape," Kevin Kirby says of the up-for-grabs wares. 

The fellas of Mellow Mushroom look to snag equipment– namely, the ice machine– for their soon-to-open gourmet burger joint on the Corner.

One of the two Hobart mixers that fetched over $600. "The mixers will go high," dealer Dustin Smith had wisely predicted pre-bidding. 

At Your Bidding's Dustin Smith relentlessly went after the Manitowoc ice machine. 


The bidders corral into the dingy kitchen as Larry the auctioneer shows off dishwashing gear. 

"Sometimes it's better with less turnout," says Mark Owens of Mobile Creations, "so that not so many people bid against you."