Day Trips

The Turkey Shop Smokin' Cafe in Abbott is back and cookin'

Who ya callin' a turkey?
Who ya callin' a turkey? (Photo By Gerald E. McLeod)

The Turkey Shop Smokin' Cafe in Abbott is back. Two years after making travelers on I-35 quit their hot turkey and dressing cold turkey, the landmark cafeteria and sandwich shop reopened this summer with new owners and the old menu. The kolache shops in West, Texas, are good, but sometimes you want some meat and potatoes.

"[The Turkey Shop] is just too good not to be open," says Ryan Kaska. "Everybody kept asking when we were going to open again. A lot of old faces have stopped by to see us."

The giant turkey perched on top of towering poles at the exit to Willie Nelson's hometown has beckoned motorists off the interstate since 1965. Kaska worked for the restaurant for 12 years and eventually married the boss' daughter, the granddaughter of the founders.

UsaLee and Gilbert Tufts were looking to decrease the number of toms on their turkey farm south of Hillsboro when they hit on the idea of selling smoked-turkey sandwiches next to the service station in Abbott on the Fort Worth-to-Austin highway. The business grew to the point that they quit raising gobblers and concentrated on cooking the birds.

Eventually the Tufts' oldest son, Robert, took over the business that routinely supplied 700 turkeys and 200 hams for Thanksgiving dinners. Manning the cash register just inside the front door, Robert never really had a day off until he retired in 2004, Kaska says.

Beverly and Tony Pustejovsky, neighbors of the Tufts, bought the restaurant from Robert and began making needed repairs. A new red roof went on the building, and the parking lot was paved, but from the highway it looked like progress was moving at a snail's pace even though a banner across the front promised that it would open soon.

Kaska says the remodeling took longer than anyone expected. During the interim he opened That Czech Bakery in West but came back to help at the new Turkey Shop as a manager. "We thought we would have a gentle slope in the business until we got back to where we were," he says. "But, instead, we took an elevator to the top. Everybody has been wonderful in helping spread the word that we're back open."

It didn't take long for the regulars to discover that the eatery was open again. Some of them are coming in more than they did before. "They say they're trying to catch up from when we were closed," Kaska says. The cooks are already smoking 70 to 90 turkeys a week in the wood-fueled ovens in the back of the restaurant.

Even though they expanded the kitchen and shortened the cafeteria line, the place looks remarkably like it did two years ago. Even the menu hasn't changed much. It's the same offering of smoked turkey, chicken, ham, brisket, and ribs. Some of the vegetables in the cafeteria line may be poured from a can, but the casseroles, pies, and cobblers are locally made.

"We're pretty much the same place we were before," Kaska says. "You'll see a lot of the old faces behind the counter. Or maybe I should say a lot of the same faces." Several of the cooks who worked for his father-in-law have returned. The lady who made the fruit and meringue pies according to "Granny" UsaLee Tufts' recipes is back in the kitchen, as is the woman who made the coleslaw.

"We thought about adding some new items to the menu," Kaska says. "But we're not sure what it would be right now." The first month they were open, the new owners did try adding pot roast to the menu. Nobody seemed to notice. "We didn't sell much of it, so the staff had to eat a lot of pot roast," he says with a laugh. "We discontinued that pretty quick. Everybody still comes here for the turkey."

The Turkey Shop Smokin' Cafe is about 22 miles north of Waco at the Abbott exit. The doors are open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:30am to 8pm. You can call in your order for Thanksgiving or any other day at 254/580-9644.

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The Turkey Shop Smokin' Cafe, That Czech Bakery, Abbott, Texas, Ryan Kaska, Willie Nelson, Beverly Pustejovsky, Tony Pustejovsky, Gilbert Tufts, UsaLee Tufts

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