Enjoy a Browser Salad while you watch a 19-foot giraffe eat browse from the trees below.
That may sound like a fantasy, but it’s the reality of a meal at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center’s Overlook Café. Feeding visitors since Fossil Rim opened to the public in 1984, the café provides spectacular scenery with a panoramic view of the park from its observation deck.
“It’s one-of-a-kind,” said Donna Steakley, Fossil Rim director of tourism, regarding the view. “Where else can you graze and see the giraffes grazing down beneath you? We encourage people to dine outside on the deck, plus there are picnic tables near the café as well.”
Steakley, who began her Fossil Rim tenure in 2005, reached a decade of overseeing the café this past April.
“I do the negotiations for the procurement of our food products, create the menu, figure out the cost ratio per item and come up with new food items with the help of my team,” she said. “Our entire café staff takes pride in what they do. They all have their food handling certificate, which is a necessity. They understand we want to provide our guests with the best experience.”
Steakley had high praise for John Ladesic, café manager for the last nine years.
“John is very important for the café,” she said. “He is diligent to keep track of our orders and make sure we don’t run out of food. He takes responsibility because he has to be the hands-on guy there.
“John has earned the title of manager over time. He’s always been the head cook and taken pride in what he serves.”
She has seen the café change for the better over the years.
“When I took this position in 2006, there was a 45-minute wait for food with a more expensive menu,” Steakley said. “While we do want it to be fresh, a 10-minute wait should be the maximum on our busiest day. Tightening up the menu made it more cost-effective and helped our speed. We’ve gone to healthier food options with the wraps and additional salads.
“In 2013, the café was redesigned inside regarding the kitchen and restructured on the outside. This year, we’re going ecofriendly with biodegradable food trays and cups. It is more expensive, but it makes sense considering the mission of Fossil Rim.”
The redesign has been deemed a functional upgrade.
“The layout of our kitchen now makes for an easy work station,” Steakley said. “We like that the customer can see what’s being cooked.”
Steakley considers the café to be an “upscale burger restaurant with healthy options.”
“We are trying to go away from deep-fried foods for the most part,” she said.
While the giraffe is arguably the most prominent animal at Fossil Rim, there’s no debate the Fossil Rim Burger is the premier item on the café menu. Steakley said it is consistently atop the list of item sales.
“I’ve often heard ‘it’s the best burger in town’ or ‘the seasoning is great,’” she said. “People come from Granbury on lunch because they think it’s the best burger out there. It is a source of pride, and we want people to enjoy their meal. Their food purchases actually go towards the feeding of the animals at Fossil Rim.”
Steakley knows quality reviews for the half-pound, all-beef burger on a Kaiser roll mean a lot to the café’s public standing.
“The café’s reputation is super important,” she said. “When we look for a food vendor, quality has to come first because it’s for our guests. We want visitors to come back and we want people from Glen Rose to stop in for a burger.”
Rounding out the top-three sellers are the Philly Cheesesteak and the Chicken and Swiss sandwich.
“I watch the item demand constantly,” Steakley said. “The Chicken Wrap is gaining momentum and could break into the top three.”
Regarding more items she thinks are tasty enough to keep climbing the ladder, Steakley kept her focus under wraps.
“We have a new Buffalo Wrap, which is really good for those who like spicy chicken,” she said. “I love the Avocado Wrap as a healthier option. Every year, we try to add something new. This year, it was Ice Cream Floats and Coffee Floats.”
Beyond the Avocado Wrap, vegetarians can also look to the Browser Salad or the Garden Burger.
“We do not deep fry our Garden Burger anymore,” Steakley said. “It is grilled. For those considering gluten-free items, of course there are the salads and we have a gluten-free option for our wraps with the tomato-basil tortilla.”
Kids have their choice of Safari Meals, which includes French fries and animal crackers with a primary item that is their choice of a Fossil Rim Jr. Burger, a Hot Dog, a Grilled Cheese or a Peanut Butter and Jelly.
Nachos and Frito Pies are currently available on weekends, but they will be sold daily during Spring Break.
“Those items, as well as the floats, will be available in our Snack Shack,” Steakley said of a mobile unit usually found in between the café and Nature Store. “Spring Break is a very labor-intense time of year, and the café leads the Fossil Rim revenue centers in that respect. We have the Snack Shack to take pressure off of the café. Consider that in one day during a previous Spring Break, we sold 240 Fossil Rim Burgers and they only made up about 40 percent of that day’s orders.”
Marsha Thomas of Grapevine is a longtime Fossil Rim visitor with her husband, Greg.
“We’ve been coming to Fossil Rim for 30 years, back to when (former owner) Tom Mantzel would greet people at the front gate,” Thomas said. “This is a great place. I just feel so good every time we come here. It’s relaxing, fun and unique, because you never know what you’ll see or what the animals will do.”
The couple enjoys feeding the animals and then strolling into the café to get fed.
“My husband and I are vegetarians, so I really like the Avocado Wrap,” she said. “The food is good, and I like the fact that eating here helps support Fossil Rim. Plus, the view is very good.”
Steakley encourages visitors to phone in their order at 254.898.4263.
“Customers are welcome to call ahead,” she said. “If you’re in a group of 30 coming through the park, let us know and we’ll get your order ready. The menu is online (http://fossilrim.org/cafe.php).”
While the café is a fine place to take a break during the Scenic Wildlife Drive, Steakley wants to make sure patrons know all facilities at the Overlook are available to visit immediately (1789 County Road 2009) and free of charge.
“You don’t have to drive through the park to visit the café or the Overlook in general,” she said. “We are getting expanding parking very soon, so come see us up here for a relaxing lunch with a view.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate