Justin Price, 36, of Imperial said he decided when he was 12 years old what kind of man he wanted to be, and it was someone a lot like the late Wesley Roger Griffith, who co-owned and operated the former Ponderosa Steakhouse in Arnold for many years.
Price and his wife, Laura, 38, recently purchased Wesley Roger’s Steak and Buffett, 3601 Jeffco Blvd., in Arnold. On Oct. 26, the couple took ownership of the restaurant Griffith helped open in 1988 as a Ponderosa Steakhouse.
Price said whenever he and his parents and five siblings ate at the restaurant, Griffith, who was known as “The Ambassador” in Arnold, always made an impression.
“My mom (Denise) waits table at Hodak’s Restaurant and Bar in St. Louis. My dad (Scott) turns wrenches for a living,” Price said. “We would come up here and eat, and I would see what I wanted out of life.
“I was always focused on the person who took the risk and put themselves in a place to serve the community. I couldn’t see that at other restaurants. I would come in here and Wes would be there. You would see him and how he connected with the community.”
Jennifer Jones, Griffith’s daughter, said Price, who started working at Ponderosa when he was 16 as a waiter and returned to the restaurant as a manager three years ago, was one of the few people her family could envision taking over the restaurant that was renamed in March 2020 after her father, who died in October 2016.
“It had to be this situation,” Jones said. “That is the only way it would have worked.
“Justin has had a fire in his stomach to do this for a long time. It has been a desire for him to want to do something like this. The SBA (Small Business Association) loan through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act allowed Justin, and many other people throughout the country, to take over a business they desired to have. It has allowed an eager, hard-working person to have their own business.”
Price said he has worked in the food industry off and on throughout his life. He also worked in sales for a time and owned an e-cigarette store.
He said he now has the chance to carve out a legacy in Arnold, like Griffith did.
“The big thing was to have the opportunity to steward Wes’s legacy,” Price said. “That was the biggest draw for me personally and business-wise.”
Griffith was a member of the Arnold Tourism Commission, the Rock Creek Sewer District board, the C-6 Educational Foundation board and the Jefferson College Foundation board. He was a member and former president of the Arnold Rotary Club, a member of the Salvation Army of Jefferson County board and a charter member of Fortune Bank in Arnold. He also was a former member and president of the Fox C-6 Board of Education.
He retired from AT&T after a 30-year career before opening the Ponderosa restaurant.
Price said he, too, wants to be involved in the community.
“I would like to join the Arnold Tourism Commission, Rotary and the same types of organizations that Wes did,” he said. “That is all part of his legacy. It is not just food. It is community as well.”
Jones said the connections her father forged were the driving force behind changing the restaurant’s name last year.
“This restaurant is based on community, not a franchise name,” she said. “It was the best thing we could have done. It made it more like a real community restaurant for Justin to take over.”
Jones said there were some tweaks to the business besides switching the name.
“We changed some interior things and the buffet,” she said. “We have a new supplier that is better than we had before. Justin had a hand in the new logo. It is a great logo.”
The restaurant was rechristened Wesley Roger’s Steak and Buffet about two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown throughout the area, Jones said.
For seven weeks, customers could not dine inside the restaurant, but it offered curbside service. She said the restaurant reopened to indoor dining in May 2020.
“The managers and employees made it easier,” Jones said of continuing to operate throughout the pandemic. “The example was you don’t stop, quit, reduce or give up.”
Jones said she was able to keep the restaurant’s approximately 45 employees on staff throughout the pandemic, and many of them still work there today.
“I think the family aspect of our staff has helped,” Price said of surviving the pandemic and keeping the restaurant staffed. “We all hunkered down together. We made it through COVID as a family.”
Jones and Price said one thing that makes Wesley Roger’s work is the management staff.
Price’s sister, Amanda Turner, has been a manager at the restaurant for four years, and general manager Diane Gokin brings 35 years of experience to the position, Jones said.
“He has the best managers,” she said.
Price said his sister helped him realize there is little that needs to be adjusted to keep Wesley Roger’s operating at peak performance.
“I thought about changes, and my sister shot me down,” he said. “She told me you need to take a step back. It wasn’t that I was getting crazy, but she knows me. She said, ‘You don’t realize how good you have it here; just let it flow. Don’t come in and try to be (celebrity restaurateur Guy) Fieri.’”
Another thing that is not changing is the Griffith’s family involvement with the restaurant, despite them no longer having an ownership stake.
Griffith’s wife, Anna, 82, still works at the restaurant, and she is helping the Prices with the bookkeeping through the transition.
Jones said she also will help when asked, and she remains on the restaurant’s management text chain.
“We are still around,” she said. “It feels like not much has changed, except I now pay full price (to eat at the restaurant).”
Price said having the family involved is a plus for him.
“It is an enormous blessing. I am grateful,” he said. “I feel confidence in it and not pressure. The foundation that has been laid is great. This has been here for so long with loyal customers, and the product is so good, it is great.”
Price’s wife is a registered nurse first assistant at SSM Health St. Clare Hospital in Fenton.