words: Marla Cantrell
images:courtesy The Mercantile and Marla Cantrell
Several years ago, while visiting Bartlesville, Oklahoma, my husband and I made a side trip to Pawhuska. This was during the Great Recession when towns everywhere were struggling. Pawhuska, though, seemed especially hard hit.
I remember the main roads that ran through the broken heart of this Osage County town, many of its old buildings as forlorn as jilted lovers. I remember how the wind blew that day, and it carried dust across a street that seemed downtrodden enough to expect nothing better.
On a recent Saturday, my husband and I returned. We’d had one of those weeks when life had had its way with us, and we were kind of hollow-eyed and weary. We’d chosen the area because my husband spent his teenage years in Bartlesville. He can drive the roads there without thinking, his brain attuned to the switches and turns, to the streets that used to take him to friends’ houses, football games, swim practices, the church haphazardly studded with giant chunks of turquoise glass.
And because we were there, we returned to nearby Pawhuska, but not to check its pulse; we knew Pawhuska was fine, The Pioneer Woman had seen to that. If you don’t know The Pioneer Woman, her name is Ree Drummond. Several years ago, she started a blog, telling stories about her life in Pawhuska, on a cattle ranch with her husband and four kids. She’d share down-home recipes that called for enough butter to shame Paula Deen, post her exquisite photos, and she’d write with so much love and humor about her trials and errors that you couldn’t help but love her.
What Ree’s created from that blog is the stuff of the American Dream. She now has more than four million followers, a cooking show on the Food Network, a string of books, a line of kitchenware sold at Walmart, and a general store/deli/bakery in downtown Pawhuska called The Pioneer Woman Mercantile.
And that’s why we were there. As I said before, we’d had a bad week, and maybe because of that, we hadn’t done any research at all. If we had, we would have known that at the end of the first week of operation, in early November 2016, 30,000 people had shown up at the Mercantile; 12,000 of those on Saturday. To date, an estimated 900,000 visitors have been to the store.
Six months later, droves have visited from across the nation, and farther still. Tour buses show up in this town of 3,500, lines form outside the entrances, with eager fans waiting in separate lines for the deli, take-out, and for the shop and bakery.
Part of the allure is the building. Built in 1903, it became the Osage Mercantile Company in 1910. The Drummonds bought the 25,000-square foot building in 2012 and transformed it. Think prairie chic meets New York City loft.
Chandeliers sparkle overhead, an impressive staircase winds its way to the second-floor bakery and coffee shop (there’s also an elevator), and tall windows bring in so much sunlight it’s hard not to be happy. On the walls, you’ll see photos of the Drummond family, candid shots of their life on the ranch.
Although my husband and I were not seeing any of this for a while. We stood in the line for the deli for thirty minutes or so before we walked away and asked a nearby shopkeeper for recommendations. The shopkeeper was eating a burger at the time, sort of zealously, and he said we should try Grill 125 at 125 East Main. He was right; it was wonderful!
When we returned, the line to get in the shop was much shorter. We waited fifteen minutes. But even waiting was fun. The staff had handed out umbrellas to shield us from the sun, and a greeter was roaming the crowd, making small talk.
Getting inside is worth the wait. Ree has said in previous interviews that she must love every product they sell. There are beautiful dishes, purses, jewelry, toys, a section for men, clothing, housewares, and of course The Pioneer Woman books.
We made our way upstairs to the bakery/coffee shop. There we waited in another line, although only for a few minutes. Standing alongside the queue was Ree’s husband, Ladd, wearing his signature cowboy hat and chatting easily with customers.
Several women had their photos taken with him, and we spoke to him as well. I was holding a T-shirt I planned to buy, and he told me the purple one I’d chosen was Ree’s favorite. I noticed some of the women nearest Ladd fanning themselves, the color rising to their faces, their hands going to their hair, smoothing it in a way that indicated nerves or flirting, I don’t know which. Ladd is sort of good looking in a way that a 100-degree day is sort of warm.
While we waited in line, we watched other customers who were eating in the bakery. There are big, comfortable chairs, well-worn rugs, more tall windows with gorgeous light. Most everyone had a shopping bag with one treasure or another in it, and most everyone was smiling.
My husband and I got a cinnamon roll and a snickerdoodle to take with us. I was kind of non-committal about the cinnamon roll until I tasted it. It alone was good enough for the entire three-plus hour trip.
When we go back, we’ll plan our trip during the week. (Note: The Merc is closed on Sunday.) We heard remarkable things about the menu, which is served six days a week, beginning at seven in the morning. Most were raving about the Chicken Fried Steak, and the Marlboro Man Sandwich. And, of course, there was much discussion about the bakery, with Ree’s Homemade Cinnamon Rolls coming out on top.
Come on the right day, and there’s even a chance you’ll be given a map with directions to The Lodge, where The Pioneer Woman’s cooking show is filmed. That didn’t happen to us. But we didn’t mind. Our trip was a rainbow at the end of an extremely stormy week.
You can’t book reservations for the Dine-In Deli. Wait times can vary, but tend to be shorter in the early morning and in the late afternoon. Parties of 15 or more can reserve The Dinner Experience on Monday-Thursday evenings. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Pioneer Woman Mercantile
532 Kihekah Avenue
Deli, Bakery, & General Store
Monday through Thursday — 7am to 7pm
Friday and Saturday — 7am to 8pm
Sunday — Closed
Memorial Day — 7am to 7pm
July 4th — 7am to 7pm