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May 6-8, 2022

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May 29, 2022

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Nugget News

Creating a landmark business in Sisters
By Jim Cornelius

Bronco Billy's founders
Photo by Lynn Woodward

It's perhaps the most-recognized building in Sisters.
The Hotel Sisters was built in 1912 and it looms large in the history and the streetscape of the town. Since 1985 it's been home to a restaurant founded by three childhood friends: John Keenan and John Tehan, and the late Bill Reed, who was killed in a private plane crash in the San Juan Islands in 2005.

"We played together every day in the summer," Keenan recalled. "We hung out at Wallace Park (in Portland); we played Little League baseball... We've known each other since the third grade."

All three kept in touch over the years, as Reed moved into the real estate business and Keenan pursued a career in the restaurant business in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Tehan, too, was in the restaurant business in Portland.

The original idea for what became Bronco Billy's Ranch Grill and Saloon was Reed's, John Keenan recalls: "Bill felt the community needed a good steakhouse – ribs – a full-service restaurant."
Reed originally approached Tehan, who was too tied up in his family business to take the plunge. But he knew someone who could: Keenan had recently moved to Bend.

"I told Bill, 'Look, Keenan's in Bend and he'd be a good partner to have.' Within an afternoon, they had worked the partnership out."

Tehan wasn't left out for long. He found a way to settle what he needed to settle in Portland and head over the mountains.

"I was able to call and humbly say, 'Hey guys, can I come, too?'" he recalls with a smile.

The restaurant was an immediate hit.

"It met our expectations; even exceeded them," Keenan says.

There was a bit of a problem though – with the name. The restaurant was originally called Hotel Sisters and Bronco Billy's Saloon. That gave folks the wrong impression.

"The number-one phone call was 'How much are your rooms; we need a place to stay'," Keenan says.
So the partners changed the name to Bronco Billy's Ranch Grill and Saloon – and the business has remained a focal point, especially for tourists.

"We're a tourist-driven business," Keenan says. "Seventy-five percent of our business is done in the summer. We have a group of locals who are very loyal to us, but the bulk of our business is ... visitors."

Bronco Billy's hosts big parties during Rodeo Weekend and is a venue for the Sisters Folk Festival. The building is one of the most photographed spots in Central Oregon, and the interior is loaded with Old West ambiance.

The back bar, purchased from The Palace Tavern in Bend when the restaurant and bar first opened, is a piece of history itself.

"They got it from a bar in San Francisco," Keenan says. "The bar in San Francisco had it made in Philadelphia in the 1860s."

Running a successful restaurant in a tiny town is not easy, especially in an increasingly competitive environment. But Tehan and Keenan have no regrets about casting their lot with the Sisters community. They like living in a town where the sidewalks roll up when the sun goes down.

"From a business standpoint (that's) not so great, but from a livability standpoint, it's pretty nice," Tehan says.
He says that whenever he travels back from the Willamette Valley, he has the same reaction when he hits town: "Oh, yeah. How lucky am I?"

That sense of place, that feeling of home, is critical to making a go of it in business in Sisters.

"You have to want to live in Sisters more than anything," Tehan says.

And both men do. They've built their lives here. Here, Tehan met and married his wife Peggy, who works as a Certified Public Accountant. Their three children have had successful runs in Sisters schools.

Keenan met and married Jean Wells, who has established herself as a legend in the quilting world.

"I was lucky to meet Jean," John says. "Her kids have adopted me and we have five grandkids."

Through many highs and lows, through triumph and tragedy, Keenan and Tehan have created a landmark business in Sisters, and remained close friends while becoming major contributors to the organizations and causes that help to make Sisters a special place.

"It's been a great run," Keenan says. "It's been great to be in the community and to do things for the community."

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