The Outback Steak and Oyster Bar still offers casual dining with a cozy Australian theme 20 years and one fire later.
“Linda and I spent two months in the (Australian) bush, learning the cooking and getting artifacts. We did that to get the idea on the style for the building,” owner Steve Wood said, explaining how he came to the present design and decor of the building.
When Linda and Wood came to Branson in 1976, he said they didn’t have a dime to their name.
“You can make it if you’re not just driven by money. We want our people to enjoy what they’re doing,” he said.
Wood surveyed the seven-acre tract of land he had purchased 20 years ago and declared, “This is where we’re going to build.”
That was the beginning of the first and original Outback restaurant.
The building is raised on 20-foot stilts on the back, down the hillside of the original seven acres with a brook running under it and surrounded by a lot of greenery.
Wood took funds from his company, Tri-Lakes Petroleum, when a bank he had applied to for a loan could not comply with his conditions. The enterprise went a year without outside funding.
“We opened Labor Day, 20 years ago, and when we opened the doors, 1,100 people came in. We have served between 1,100 to 1,500 people everyday since,” Wood said. “What I tell people is, if you believe in your project, you can do it.”
Once the plans were on paper and the Woods were satisfied, he said, the plans never changed.
People may have visited an Outback Steakhouse in Springfield or somewhere across the midwest. Wood does not own those resaurants. His Outback is not part of that chain, which is owned by a partnership.
Steve Sullivan, one of the partners, tried to buy the Branson Outback from Wood several years ago.
“We’re the only Outback Steak and Oyster Bar. That first year we got a cease and desist letter from Outback Steakhouse to stop using the name. Well, we had it first — we were incorporated first,” Wood said.
“Sullivan came here and tried to buy us out. He said he had a room full of letters asking why they couldn’t do this or that — like we do. I priced the whole thing, the hotel, the restaurant, the pub. We were about $2 million apart in price.”
The buyout never happened.
Wood related how they had celebrities frequent the establishment, but he never took pictures to hang on the wall. He felt couples who came to the restaurant were just as important.
“I told my servers not to fawn over the celebrities. Just treat them like everyone else. Some would come in here, like Loretta Lynn. She sat right over there and watched everything,” he said, pointing to a far corner.
“Now when Willie Nelson was in here, it was different. He was one of my best customers — he loved the attention. He would buy everybody drinks — wanted to talk to people,” Wood said, recalling some of the many singer celebrities who had been in the restaurant.
The Outback Pub building was built about 15 years ago.
“When we started this restaurant, we noticed right away that about two percent of our sales were T-shirts. So we built the Outback Outfitters — that’s what it was before it was a pub. We were selling over a million dollars in that 800-square-foot building.
“When Reba McIntire would come to town, we would close the store so she could shop. It was worth closing the store to let her shop. Other singers caught on,” he said, adding that eventually the market changed.
Once again, Wood has responded to what his customers want. The Outback Pub has always had live music, but the genre may be changing in response to customer suggestions.
“I think we need to give people a place to come where they can talk and enjoy the music,” he said.