KEARNEY — Neither a flood nor a pandemic could stop food-loving couple Sean and Dawn Cromer of Kearney from opening their barbecue business in 2020.
The Cromers, who own S.A.M. Que and Catering, expanded their food truck and catering business to a restaurant in spring 2020 at 324 Third Ave. in south Kearney, despite going through a flood in July 2019, and holding back their March opening date because of the pandemic.
“We’ve gone through a gamut of things,” Dawn said.
On July 9, 2019, the Cromers expected to begin renovations on their space, a former doughnut shop, but on that same day south Kearney flooded. Three feet of water surrounded the Cromers’ newly purchased building and seeped inside.
The Cromers had to replace the entire north wall of the building.
“That put us behind because every contractor that we had lined up for what we were doing in our remodel had 20 times more work to spread out because everybody needed something done at some point,” she said.
Despite the setback, the Cromers carried on, and were ready to open on March 18. However, on the same day, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts issued his first coronavirus pandemic health directive, which closed in-dining service in Cass, Douglas and Sarpy counties.
Though a directive wasn’t issued for Buffalo County until March 30, the Cromers decided not to open their dining room. Instead, they used their three years of food truck knowledge and implemented it at the restaurant, which included knowing how to operate lean.
At first they only made take-out orders two days a week.
“We already knew how to do it because we were used to putting everything in a box,” Sean said. “It was just another step of handing it out a pickup window versus someone walking up to the door.”
After the first two weekends, the Cromers gradually added days to their take-out service. In June, when COVID-19 restrictions loosened, they opened, and rehired their staff.
Since then, Sean said business has steadily increased. They are now open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.
Families, working people, guests of local hotels and Interstate 80 travelers patronize S.A.M. Que, for Sean’s Awesome Meats and the couple’s house-made sides.
Sean, who used to compete in barbecue competitions, smokes meats daily and seasons it with recipes he used at competitions. Meats include brisket with burnt ends, sausage, pork butts, ribs, chicken, turkey and hot links. They are served as plates, on sandwiches, sliders, flat breads, nachos and baked potatoes (Wednesdays only).
Sean also grinds hamburger from prime grade brisket.
“Using the brisket gives it a little more robust flavor profile, more so than just any ordinary ground beef. This is very specific and we trim it down to where we want it as far as fat content,” he said.
The sides, Dawn said, are made from her and Sean’s “tried and true” recipes.
Sides made in-house include smoked baked beans, coleslaw, potato salad, hash brown casserole, mac and cheese and dictator tots. The latter was named by food truck customers in a contest.
“They are dictator tots because they rule,” Dawn said.
These tots are balls of pillowy potatoes with a fried crispy exterior.
“People think there’s cheese in them but there’s not,” Dawn continued. “It’s just the special seasoning, spices that we use, the technique. It starts from whole potatoes and we peel them.”
The Cromers also make their three sauces — S.A.M sauce, a mild variety; raspberry chipotle, a medium sauce with sweet heat; and the Stu Pidasso, the spiciest sauce — from scratch.
Although Dawn wouldn’t share any of their special ingredients, she said, “We are really notorious for tons of ingredients.”
Another signature feature at S.A.M. Que is the Sunday Funday Bloody Mary. The 32-ounce drink is only served on Sundays and is topped with a smoked chicken quarter, cheeseburger slider, St. Louis rib, celery, green onion, dill pickle spear, cheddar cheese cubes, crispy bacon, spicy fried pub pickles, pretzel bites, dictator tots, a jalapeño hard-boiled egg and a lime wedge.
“When you deliver those to a table it’s like Christmas-time for adults. You see their faces just light up,” Dawn said.
Making people happy is why she and Sean love the food business.
“We really like the fast pace of it,” Sean said, “making your customers happy and knowing that they left happy.”