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Steakhouse owners "figure it out"

Opened July 1, Cantu's in Bridgeport already drawing crowds

 

Depending upon when you catch him, William Cantu might be cooking, chatting with customers in his dining room or on his mobile phone, dispatching trucks.

Owning a restaurant is something new for a man who spent seven years working in stockyards before purchasing a semi. Before long he bought another, just as a back up. Now he owns a fleet of six.

Grilling steaks and popping clam strips into the deep fryer—that’s something new.

“People said ‘why do a restaurant? You know nothing about restaurants,’” Cantu said. “You just have to figure it out.”

He opened Cantu's Steakhouse & Bar in Bridgeport with his wife, Olga, on July 1. The renovated space serves slabs of red meat (naturally), as well as seafood, sandwiches and such. Despite the everyday menu, a Saturday afternoon finds locals, weekend bikers and travelers from as far away as Wisconsin cooling off inside its spacious setting.

Already, Cantu has counted folks from Kimball, Hemingford and Sidney at his tables.

“If you do good food, they will be here,” he pointed out.

Panhandle residents willingly travel an hour or more for a decent cut of beef. McGrew’s pink palace, Rock Ranch in Pine Bluffs, T-Joe’s on the outskirts of Cheyenne and Sidney’s own Dude’s Steakhouse are all popular destinations.

Cantu’s, too—though in a once and different guise.

The new restaurant fills the space occupied for years by Wildman’s Bar and Grill, vacated by the death of its owner, Rod “Wildman” Skarboe, in July of last year.

“We were good friends,” Cantu said of the man who made the southern edge of Bridgeport a hangout for everyone. “He did a great steak.”

Locals encouraged William—his given name is Guillermo—to bring life back to the location. He and his wife spent eight months tinkering, cleaning and redesigning. In the meantime, they opened their first attempt at Cantu’s in nearby Bayard. It was a temporary measure. But it also allowed them to learn something of the industry. The couple are in the process of shutting down the first location, directing traffic to Bridgeport.

“It was a high dollar school,” he said of the first attempt. “But you have to learn somewhere.”

Throughout his life, Cantu has shied away from few challenges. Born in Monterrey, Mexico, to a butcher from a farming family, he came to the U.S. in 1985. On the feedlots, he volunteered for every task, including a few turns behind the wheel of a truck. This led to a career driving—and then owning—short haul 18-wheelers.

Now he directs a team of truckers. Yet his greatest moment outside of family life came in 1998, when he passed the United States citizenship test. Wildman’s opened the very same year.

“The first question they asked was ‘who was the first president?’ I remembered ‘George Washington’ because my boss’s name was George,” Cantu joked.

He learned English on the job, haltingly but well. When asked, during the citizenship test, to spell the colors on America’s national flag, he scribbled “red” and “white” easily, but faltered at “blue.”

The proctor asked him about the hold up. He looked up and explained—with a wink—that in the feedlots he wrote tags for red-haired cattle and white-haired cattle, but had never encountered one with blue hair.

A longtime Bridgeport resident, he has a way with guests, greeting every customer as a friend. He sits for a moment with locals, but pays a fair measure of attention to unfamiliar faces, as well.

“Dad told us ‘always take care of the customers,’” he says, this time with an earnest expression. “If they are not happy, you find out what went wrong.”

Nothing seems to faze this versatile restaurateur. After eight months of reconstruction, turning Wildman’s into Cantu’s, opening another version in Bayard and running a small fleet of trucks, friends began to nudge him. Over and over, they asked when his Bridgeport restaurant would open. Finally, he just decided upon July 1.

Nine days later, he can be seen directing one person tweaking overhead lights and another hired to clean windows.

“I’m still not done,” Cantu admits. There are still little details to fix.”

In the meantime, he waits tables, helps in the kitchen and—as always—checks in on trucks that run seven days a week.

“I can cook, do dishes—I’m not rich, I have to work,” he said.

 

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