Home On The Range
● By Melissa Mendonca
ORDER UP AT VIC’S BRANDING IRON IN COTTONWOOD
Story: Melissa Mendonca Photo: James Mazzotta
There are 19 seats at the counter of Vic’s Branding Iron in Cottonwood, and each has been laid claim to by the many who dine there on a daily basis. “We’ve got a lot of older guys and they all sit in the exact same seat,” says manager Vic Woolery, 67, of his Shasta Livestock Auction yard institution. “They feel bad if someone else gets their seat. But most of them are here at 6 o’clock when we open, so it’s not a problem.”
Whether one gets a seat at the counter or a table, a meal at Vic’s Branding Iron, often referred to simply as the Auction Yard, is a peek into the world of the North State cattle industry as well as a study of its past.
The restaurant’s décor is in homage to local ranchers. The cattle brands of more than 100 ranches have been seared into wood blocks that line the walls. “We’re out of room though now, so I’m not sure what we’re going to do,” he says of carrying on the tradition.
Smaller wall spaces showcase local western art, including a pencil drawing of local ranchers at a Cottonwood cattle drive and a 1947 photograph of eight cowboys on horseback at the local McAuliffe Ranch. A piece close to Vic’s heart is an oil done by his friend Betty Toms of Vic in his cattle truck, coming out of the Bidwell Ranch during a freak snowstorm. Drawn from a photograph, he feels it captures perfectly the feel of that memorable day.
The restaurant bustles on Fridays, when the weekly cattle auction occurs down the hall. Buyers and sellers arrive from near and far and often talk industry business over the famous chicken fried steak, the popularity of which Vic attributes to gravy. Although business has been good year round, he notes that “we get busy when the rains start and the cattle people come back.” He estimates that 600 to 1,000 head of cattle sell each week in the summer and 2,000 to 4,000 every Friday in the winter.
While the boots of many customers may show evidence of walks through cattle pens, the restaurant has found a following with locals and I-5 travelers alike who appreciate bacon cured by Kent’s Market and the camaraderie of people working hard to make a living. Whether you’re a regular or one one who stops through once a year on a trip north or south, Vic welcomes you. “There are so many nice people and I think we get all of them,” he says.
Most people find the restaurant via word of mouth or through the cattle business, but one of Vic’s servers, Miranda, is working to bring in even more customers through the use of social media. While Vic just shakes his head in awe of all the possibilities, saying simply, “I’m helpless” at such endeavors, the restaurant has a Facebook page and Yelp listing.
Vic became the manager and namesake of the auction yard’s restaurant about 10 years ago when he decided to close his cattle hauling business. His barbecue and cooking had already garnered quite the reputation at area branding events and the Red Bluff Bull and Gelding Sale, so his take on a restaurant was eagerly anticipated by many.
He continues to cater and is known as much for his New York steaks as the tri-tip that has become ubiquitous at North State events. “I try to just do cattle events, but I do a lot of other events, too. It seems like I know too many people,” he says with a grin.
Vic also enjoys a spot on the Shasta District Fair Board and uses it to advocate for the hundreds of 4-H and FFA members who show and sell at the junior livestock auction. While he anticipates his tenure ending at the end of his current term, it’s clear he’ll always find a way to support young people raising livestock.
In Vic’s mind, the recipe for success is pretty simple: “I think we have good food,” he says. “We have good ol’ substantial western American food.” There’s that, and a respect for people and tradition as well as a desire to bring the next generation along. When served up with a side of bacon, it’s a blue-ribbon meal.
Vic’s Branding Iron (Shasta Livestock Auction Yard) 3917 Main Street, Cottonwood • (530) 347-4036 Monday-Tuesday: 6 am-3 pm Wednesday-Saturday: 6 am-9 pm Sunday:- 6 am-3 pm