Home on Ogallala's Open Range Grill

This California-born rancher drives his cattle home on the range - the Open Range, that is. Grass-fed beef fuels this Ogallala burger joint, as well as hundreds of hungry visitors from across the US.

Colby Coggins, one of the partner owners of Open Range Grill, uses his own local beef from the family cattle ranch to fill the restaurant’s menu.

Christopher Amundson

(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

WHEN A HERD OF about 200 hamburger hunters fill up the Open Range Grill in Ogallala it’s hardly overwhelming for owner Colby Coggins. Herds are something this 41-year-old cowboy deals with every day at his family’s 7,000-acre cattle ranch 20 miles northwest of this popular restaurant and bar, where many of Coggins’ grass-fed ranch residents become welcome dinner guests.

Of course, another reason Colby doesn’t worry about super-sized crowds at the Open Range is because most days he’s home on the range tending to that large cattle herd. It provides about 90 percent of the all-natural burgers that locals and Lake McConaughy tourists have been craving since the restaurant’s opening in 2011. Even with as many as 500 momma cows building the herd, supplies can get a little lean in the summertime when the beach crowd from the state’s largest lake flows in. Then Coggins sends out an occasional SOS and buys from neighboring cattle ranchers.

The restaurant was dreamt up about a decade ago with the help of the co-owners, his wife, Jennifer, and his longtime buddy and local contractor, Chris Cleland. The brainstorming began in 2001 during the two years Cleland helped Coggins build a straw-bale house for his family on the ranch started decades ago by Jennifer’s grandpa, Eugene Feltz. All three envisioned opening a cool restaurant like the one they still had warm memories for. It was a place they hung out together as teenagers growing up in northern California.

“What we were going to build would fill a void,” Colby said. “It would be a place that was a family-friendly, relaxed atmosphere, but also a place where people could get together on a Saturday night and have a few beers or cocktails.”

The Open Range dream began on a rocky trail when they bought a former boat dealership on north Spruce Street that had been sunk for an unlucky seven years. Coggins described it as a 4,000-square-foot shell.

“There was no plumbing or anything in there,” he said. “It was almost like starting from scratch.”

There was a bit of head scratching, then he and Cleland got rolling with a design plan. When it was finished, the roomy and rustic setting included wooden tables and booths built by Cleland. The restaurant also is filled with ranching memorabilia in a tribute to Ogallala’s famed cattle drives and hardworking ranch families. The walls feature classic photos from Jennifer’s family ranch that Colby now runs as well as pictures from the Keith County Historical Society and old shots of the longtime California ranch owned by Colby’s family.

By the summer of 2012, an outdoor beer garden was added with patio seating and a large awning for Lake Mac travelers to take a break from the sun. The restaurant has developed a loyal local following, and with Open Range so close to one of Nebraska’s biggest tourist attractions, business certainly heats up in the summertime. summertime. When that swimsuit crowd stops in, there certainly can be a different flavor added to the mellow mix. Coggins chuckled a cryptic clue.

“We do get some interesting visitors from the lake sometimes,” he said.

WHETHER YOU ARRIVE in a bikini, cowboy boots or farmer’s overalls, the burgers will soon be ready to bid you welcome. Other customer favorites include the hand-cut French fries, Reuben sandwiches, sweet potato fries, and that classic cowboy appetizer some folks have a ball munching on, Rocky Mountain oysters. The doors also happily swing open for non-meat eaters with the cleverest item on a colorful menu, the “de-calfinated” veggie burger.

“Most of them come from Colorado or Lincoln,” Coggins said of fans of the meatless patty. “There’s not a lot of local vegetarians, but there are a handful.”

When Colby gazes over his Open Range, his favorite creation is the bar he and Cleland built from a discarded wooden canal bridge at a dam near the village of Keystone. A concrete bridge replaced the original and the wooden ruins were up for grabs for inventive woodworkers. Coggins took home a huge helping to build corrals at the ranch before reusing the wood to raise the bar.

“They’ve had a few different lives before they ended up in a bar,” Coggins cracked about the wandering wood.

The move from California to Nebraska happened about two decades ago for Coggins and Jennifer when they moved to her Ogallala birthplace. A few years later, Cleland starting tagging along for hunting trips in November. He seemed to stay a little longer each year, until finally he never left. Now he has his own family and a home to the north of the lake near Lewellen.

All three owners’ hectic lives force them to usually keep their distance from the Open Range, but they confidently rely on their dedicated employees to keep the dream going strong seven days a week. Cleland is focused on his building projects. Colby has to keep steering his cattle in the right direction and Jennifer is a school counselor in Ogallala and also is busy coaching and driving their three daughters to various activities. Jennifer still manages daily stops at the restaurant to handle the bookkeeping and check in on staffing issues.

“I need about five of me,” she sighed.

When Colby comes in to chow down he’s not shy about rolling up his sleeves when all hands on deck are needed for waves of customers.

“I don’t spend much time behind the grill but I find myself behind the bar quite a bit,” he said.

Coggins is proud of the skills of his staff, but perhaps his most valuable workers are those beefy fellows back at the ranch. They keep snacking on that grass salad bar until it’s time for that trip to Colorado at the government-inspected processing plant.

“They’re pretty good about helping me out,” Coggins said of his prized cattle. “I take care of them and they take care of me.”

That teamwork is applauded by many grateful burger lovers at the Open Range.

(This story originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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