On my annual trip to North Dakota last year, I got into Bismarck a little early to go see my dealer there. I decided to look for a place for lunch and did a quick search on my smart phone for a good lunch place. A couple three suggestions came up, but I opted for the one with the fun and unique name - The Walrus.
The Walrus has been around for 20 years, but for a little over the last 10 years a lady by the name of Jill Sanford has worked there. She started out working part-time at The Walrus supplementing her income as a music teacher in the local school district. One day in 2009 she was talking with the owner and made a joke about selling the place to her one day. It turned out the owner was looking to get out of the business and more conversations ensued. The next thing Sanford knew, she was quitting her teaching job and buying the Walrus.
Going from being a part-time waitress/music teacher to the owner of an established restaurant was a big stretch for Sanford. I read where she felt the first 18 months were excruciating for her as she was learning the business on the fly. But Sanford has settled in nicely as business has steadily grown over the past seven years. One of the things Sanford has implemented over the past few years has been a focus on offering a wide selection of craft beers at The Walrus. The place offers over three dozen beers on tap with an ever-changing line-up of seasonal beers to choose from. From the on-line description I found, The Walrus sounded like my kind of place.
Pictured right - Jill Sanford. Photo courtesy Bismarck Tribune.
It was the heart of the noon rush when I pulled up to The Walrus which is located in a strip mall not far from the North Dakota State Capitol building. (see map) There was plenty of parking available in the parking lot in front of the building. The Walrus is a long and narrow space in the strip mall with an two levels of seating as well as a bar area near the rear. The walls were full of beer signs - both lighted and non-lit - with some natural light coming in from the large windows in the front.
I took a seat at the bar area in the back of the restaurant near the open kitchen. Though I didn't recognize her at the time, Jill Sanford was standing near the server's station by the bar choreographing the food orders between the kitchen and the servers. I was greeted by the bartender/server Britnee who asked me what I wanted to drink. One of the beers on tap at The Walrus was my current favorite - Kona Big Wave Golden Ale. Any place that has Kona Big Wave on tap, I immediately like.
Britnee had dropped off a lunch menu for me to look through. It featured a number of salads with house-made dressings, a number of sandwiches to choose from, as well as pasta dishes and pizza. Curiously, they only had one burger on the menu - the Bailey Burger - that featured a 1/2 pound beef patty topped with lettuce, tomato and onions. I saw the price and thought that it had better be a damned good burger because it was $12.99 - and that was before you could get add-ons such as bacon, sautéed mushrooms and a choice of five different types of cheese which would have added about $3.75 to the overall price of the burger.
I wasn't really certain that I wanted a burger, anyway. A lot of the pasta dishes sounded wonderful including the Spicy Rock that featured fettuccine with shrimp and jalapeño slices, but I just thought that would be too heavy, considering I was taking my dealer in Dickinson out for a steak dinner that evening. I was still undecided what to have when Britnee came back and told me about the lunch special that day - three carnitas tacos with chips and salsa for $14.99. I thought that was a little high priced for three tacos and chips and salsa, but I figured the tacos were pretty good sized.
Uh... They weren't. They were three small soft-shell tacos with some basic pulled pork that didn't taste like it was seasoned, some chopped lettuce greens and a sprinkling of Chihuahua cheese. The chips tasted like they came out of a bag of Doritos and the salsa tasted like it came out of a jar of Pace salsa. I was absolutely stunned that they had the gall to charge $14.99 for this plate of food. I mean, the tacos were all right - not the best carnitas tacos I've had. But this was a situation where I just could not believe that I was getting charged $15 bucks for this plate of food. I know that margins in restaurants aren't all that great, but the profit margin they made off me that day had to be substantial.
I really wanted to like The Walrus. I really did. I like the owner's back story of starting to work there as a server and working her way up to owning the place. I like the fact that they have a great selection of craft beers on tap. And I liked the varied choices for food they had for lunch. But the price of $14.99 for three small pork tacos, some bagged chips and bottled salsa was just absolutely outrageous. I know prices can be a little higher in North Dakota and maybe I got a little bit of a sticker shock for the cost of the tacos. But compared to similar places I've found around the Midwest, The Walrus is a horrible value.