The best boss I ever had

It was fall of 1977 and Lance Pugh was the manager and owner of Lithia Grocery Restaurant. Grilla Bites is now on the site of what was later called Lithia Restaurant in 1979, then Tommy's in the '80s.

Juggling raw eggs is not a cooking feat that was taught me by some great French chef or epicurean that finely approaches the souffle by some sleight of hand. I was just juggling raw egg yolks on a bet by the dishwasher that I couldn't do it. Out of nowhere appeared the 200-pound "Heavy," "The Chief," "The Angry Father Figure." Lance said, "Step out back."

As I walked out back dejected and with 15-year-old fear and past the prep table I was juggling over, Lance said, "Sit down kid." I sat down. I listened to the familiar and comforting sounds of Lithia Creek (as we used to call the creek — not Ashland Creek). My only comfort was the loud sound of water moving and the refreshing smell of the swiftly moving, ice-cold, melted Mount Ashland water only 15 feet away. My mind wandered in and out of fear wishing I had gone skiing instead of getting this job as prep cook and dishwasher.

Then I realized I was a little more than intimidated by this big guy, my boss, Lance. For weeks he had been telling me that he was enjoying his weight lifting at some new gym (owned by his friend Al) across from Goodtimes Family Fun — and he was bench pressing the equivalent of my weight and his combined. Even though I was a scrawny amateur Ashland High School freshmen weighing in at about 100 pounds and benching less than my body weight that had been recently offered the job of Lunch cook. Fear was now turning to adrenaline and a little bit of shakiness on my egg yolk-stained hands.

"You are gonna be also working nights and I want you to be a dinner chef for me." I thought he was sentencing me to Gulag without minimum wage by the tone in his voice. Saved for a second a beautiful Lithia Grocery waitress stepped back through the squeaky back porch door and said with a sexy, cheery voice with a slightly urgent tone, "I need an order of two super deluxe avocado and cheese sandwiches with a side order of a cup of Mediterranean soup, and an avo melt with a salad with tamari sauce and a mushroom omelet with a side of sprouts."

I said, "Mr. Pugh I don't know if I can cook dinner too." He replied, "You are gonna be great, and you are gonna be my best cook so start working with Stevo on Sunday." I could not say no, and I headed back toward the kitchen. "And stop juggling my eggs. You are already working in slow motion."

This is the way promotions were done in the '70s and Lance was an original. The restaurant had a pot belly stove in the middle and Ellen and Steve would sing songs with their guitars about love and anti-nuke themed togetherness. People would literally line up out the door waiting to be seated by waitresses in Indian hippie dresses that all looked like Joni Mitchell, Barbara Streisand or Linda Ronstadt and had sweeter voices when they sang over the vinyl records that constantly cranked out these great sounds of the '70s.

The world was all one that Lance and his wife, Annette, had created with their own hands in the early '70s. There was an oak and glass cooler with fresh-squeezed carrot and watermelon juice from Lenny, and ginger soda that tasted way better than Coke, Pepsi and Sprite. Then on the left there was a long deli that displayed 4-inch-thick super deluxe avo sandwiches sprinkled with Lithia Blend and lemon juice over the top of Keith's alfalfa sprouts. All day people would order frozen yogurt (sweetened only with fruit) from the deli as the solid-brass cash register went "cha-ching, cha-ching!"

Looking to the back you could see through to the kitchen and the chrome ticket wheel with two layers of orders for food that was flying out of that kitchen. I remember the happy people and atmosphere were the result of the efforts of early entrepreneurs, Lance and Annette. They had Harry Anderson (before he became the star of "Night Court") working nights doing magic tricks for Curt's night club that Lance and Annette ran till 2 a.m. Ashland characters would play chess, eating Jeannie's cheesecake and drinking goods things. Talk about religion or esoteric subjects filled the air. I mostly remember hearing the anti-disco music and laughter. Often I remember showing up at 4 a.m. to cook breakfast and the night club was just cleaning up.

I estimated I had cracked just short of a million eggs in the three more years working for Lance. It was the time of my life. I never became his best cook but I stopped working in slow motion and I never had a guy like Lance light a fire under me like that.

With his passing I remember his vision and overview of the plaza. Unbeknownst to him, I eavesdropped on him talking at Booth Number Six about a better Ashland. I knew he was a planning commissioner and I knew he had something to do with beautiful lights on Oak Street and a plan for an improved plaza, but I wondered why someone had so many ideas. All of us cooks and dishwashers actually became a better Ashland in our own right. I left for Los Angeles in the '80s and some of those guys worked for him on other projects. We learned to be hard workers under his management and years later we always thanked him for making us better people.

Now that he has moved on to the other side, I say, "Thank you, Lance, for giving me a second chance when most bosses would have fired me." And in the spirit of his many well-written opinions, I would say Ashland needs to have a better sense of humor as it preserves its past. Lance would want us to be more honest and less politically correct, and more urgent about important issues like supporting local business.

So, here's to "The Boss!"

Tom Frantz is a longtime resident of Ashland and former employee of Lance Pugh, who died May 23.

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