HULETT — It was raining Thursday afternoon in this small Wyoming town, but the rain didn’t seem to douse any spirits as businesses there prepared for what is likely to be their biggest single business day of the year.
That day is known unofficially among the Sturgis rally crowd as Wyoming Wednesday. Bikers from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally will hop on their rides that day and hit the road for the Devils Tower Loop.
The loop is being promoted in Sturgis rally materials, which includes a map marking out towns on the route with something to see or do. The loop in Wyoming starts with Aladdin and Alva, then continues on with Hulett and Moorcroft. It finishes up in Sundance and Beulah. Devils Tower National Monument, the magnet that inspires all those bikers to explore the area, is smack dab in the middle of the loop.
“(The rain) totally affects, you know, the event outcome, but I have no control over it,” Michael Dean Coronato, the chef at the Ponderosa Café, told Cowboy State Daily. “So I don’t lose sleep over it. You know what, there’s no bad rallies. Some are better. A bad rally I guess would be if they canceled it.”
How Wyoming Wednesday Got Started
There are no particular records explaining how the Wyoming Wednesday tradition started from the Sturgis rally, but a big part of it is the famous Ham-N-Jam that began more than 30 years ago in Hulett.
Marla Waugh and her late husband Ron kept the Ham-N-Jam tradition going when they bought the Hulett Rodeo Bar bar 28 years ago and renamed it Capt’n Ron’s Rodeo Bar.
Waugh told Cowboy State Daily the Ham-N-Jam tradition was going on in 1989, starting small, with a single free hog and free music.
Her husband Ron, meanwhile, took it to new heights, smoking as many as three pigs and feeding at least 1,000 people.
“When we first bought the bar, there wasn’t anything going on except us,” she said. “Now it’s like Wyoming Wednesday, you know? We were the only ones giving anything away. Now they’ve got the burnouts at Sundance, they’ve got a hog feed over at Newcastle.”
There’s also a rib rally in Moorcroft, and a bike-washing operation in Aladdin.
This is helping build more traffic for the overall loop, Waugh believes, while relieving the pressure on businesses like hers.
She has been able to scale back the free hog feed a little bit.
“It’s based on what we can afford, you know,” she said. “It just comes out of our pocket, other than donations. Sometimes people can be very generous with donations.”
A Year In The Making
Coronato, like other restaurant owners, has been planning for Wyoming Wednesday, as well as the two weeks surrounding it, which bookmark the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota, since December. He stocks up on the paper goods he will need and starts to set up a menu he thinks will appeal to bikers looking for something a little healthier than traditional fare.
“People really thought I was nuts,” Coronato said. “But I look at these guys, and some of them are diabetic, you know, and they want healthier food.”
So Coronato decided to do something a little different and cater to that niche with a pared-down menu that includes things like grilled chicken Caesar salads, peel-and-eat shrimp, brisket, pulled pork and burgers.
“You gotta have burgers,” Coronato said. “But I try to order stuff that I can keep on my menu, some of the stuff that I’m going to use after, so if it is slow, I’m not stuck with, you know, 500,000 turkey legs.”
Coronato is not the only restaurant that pares down its menu and adjusts the business model to accommodate the sudden influx of customers that the Sturgis rally brings. The nearby Red Rock Cafe also cuts its menu down to the most popular and fastest items, and shifts to a carry-out model instead of sit-down service.
“We cut it way down,” owner Sharon Penning told Cowboy State Daily. “We’ll put everything in a carry-out box, too, so we don’t have to deal with doing the dishes.”
Penning estimated she’ll more than double her normal business at the cafe, serving at least 400 to 500 people that day.
Coronato, meanwhile, estimated he serves up to 10 times the number of people he normally does. He expects to turn around 900 people that day.
“On a normal (day)? If we did 60 lunches, that would be great,” he said. “I’d be happy.”
Make Or Break
For Coronato, the rally day is not make or break, but it is very welcome.
“It doesn’t carry me,” he said. “Hunting season is better because it’s extended.”
That said, Coronato really appreciates the economic boost.
“It’s a great impact,” he said. “We don’t raise our prices. We embrace it, rather than try to screw them, and that’s why we survive. That’s why they come here. You know there’s hotels that triple the price and people who raise the beer prices. We don’t. I actually lower my food prices, because it’s not the same food that I (normally) do.”
Penning, meanwhile, said she counts on the weeks that lead up to and follow Wyoming Wednesday to help carry her business through the winter.
“It really brings a lot of revenue into the town,” she said. “Everybody gets a fair share of it. The market, the gas station, the hardware store, the restaurants, the motels. And I think that’s really great. It really helps. We really do need to make money in the summer. It’s hard in the winter here after the hunting season. It doesn’t pick up again until next May.”
Penning is among businesses who remain open all year long, despite that slump, so she has full-time, year-round positions to offer. Otherwise, she feels it would be hard to keep workers at her restaurant.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.