Watching the exhausted, smoke-blackened faces of firefighters as they trudge in from front-line battles with raging forest fires is a haunting experience. One pictures the battle-weary firefighters dragging in to a tent camp that looks like it came from a M*A*S*H rerun and lining up for another round of C-ration- type food before falling onto cots for some hard-earned rest.
Much of that scenario rings true for the 380 firefighters battling the 12,200-acre Diamond Peak fire near the Utah-Colorado border. The lone exception is that instead of C-rations, the crews line up for hefty portions of steak, pork chops, mesquite-broiled chicken and other restaurant-quality offerings served up by Houston's Trail's End Mobile Catering, an extension of a Kanab restaurant.Robert Houston says the catering service helped save a family business in which the family was growing faster than the business.
"We were in a position where the restaurant (Houston's Trail's End Restaurant) was just not supporting the three families that were involved," said Houston. That included Houston, his brother and their mother and father.
"At first I thought it was a case of temporary insanity (getting involved)," Houston said, chuckling as he recalls the first efforts to feed a few hundred exhausted and starving fire-fighters. "But we've learned a lot as we've gone along, and now I think we offer a first-class operation."
The mobile catering service consists of two semitrailer trucks outfitted for kitchen duty, a smaller serving trailer and another semi-trailer that provides freezer, refrigerator and dry goods storage.
Houston said about 12 companies provide catering service to forest fire crews in the Western United States. His is the smallest, operating only one unit.
"We've thought of expanding, but we decided we would rather do one really well than try to stretch ourselves out," Houston said.
Like the Kanab restaurant, the catering service is literally a family operation. The service is usually manned by Houston, his brother, their wives and a couple of local schoolteachers who hire on for the summer work. "We also bring along some of the kids to help out."
Mom and dad stay in Kanab and keep the restaurant going.
Houston prides himself on being able to be on the road in a matter of hours, fully stocked and ready to heat up the ovens within minutes of arrival at the base camp.
"We got a call just before midnight on the Fourth of July for this fire," he said. "By 4 p.m. the next day we were here and in place, ready to start cooking."
For the firefighters at a Houston-catered fire, the eating is good. "Just about everything we serve has been tested at our restaurant before we add it to the menu," Houston said. "If it's successful at the restaurant, we can be pretty sure that the fire crews will like it."
While one might think the weary firefighters would settle for just about anything after a 12-hour stint out on the lines, Houston said his customers are fairly typical of the clientele he gets in the restaurant.
"These are mostly young men, a lot of them are college kids on a summer job," he said. "They are aware of health trends, and we hear comments all the time that show they are informed consumers. The other night one guy looked at the offerings and said he better bypass one item because it contributes to hardening of the arteries.
"We have to be aware of the health trends, and we are being challenged every year with more and more stringent sanitary guidelines."
Houston said his family originally intended the catering service for movie companies that filmed Westerns in the Kanab area. The company worked with the "Grizzly Adams" TV series and a few movies before the movie business tapered off. But the Forest Service came along to fill the gap, and now Houston's Trail's End Mobile Catering can be found at about two major fire scenes each summer.
"We've been in every Western state from Canada to Mexico with the exception of Washington and Oregon in our 12 years," Houston said. "We even spent 60 days at Yellowstone last year. That was a real challenge."
The next time you see pictures of the fire crews on the 6 o'clock news you can bet they're dog tired and starving. But you can also bet that most of them are on their way to a pretty good meal, especially if Robert Houston is set up nearby.