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Perfecting 'Players': Restaurant manager on delicious mission

James Young is the general manager of Players Sports Bar & Grill. (Ellie Potter / The Dickinson Press)

James Young, 47, of Dickinson, loves food — and what he can do with it.

"It's my way of serving people ... (It's about) Christian values, feeding the masses," said Young, general manager of Players Sports Bar & Grill, 2050 First Ave. E.

"My way of serving the community," he said.

He said he was about age 7 when he started helping at his grandfather's restaurant in Elgin, Ill., spooning coleslaw into cups, carrying beverages, cleaning off tables.

And learning about service: His grandpa would give away his leftover homemade pies and barbecued ribs, and he'd volunteer to cook for church events.

Now, 40 years later in Dickinson, a current task of Young's is once again the coleslaw, bettering it.

"I don't care for it," he said about the current coleslaw recipe at Players and he's tweaking it with feedback from customers he chats with.

"This is the customers' restaurant, not mine," Young said. "I work for the patrons coming into the restaurant. Without them, I don't have a job."

But there is that list of food items that Young, manager since mid-2015, is wholly satisfied with at Players.

"Players' cheesecake is the best this side of the Hudson River," he said.

The cheesecake maker and Players' all-around pastry chef is his wife, Lucy Young, a former law student and businesswoman who has a passion for baking.

Young is also proud they make their own dough for the pizza crusts.

And that they use Guinness beer in the fish-fry batter.

And then there's the meat:

"The steaks are delicious and absolutely huge," he said.

But he's proudest of where that steak originated: It's all Dakota beef — North and South.

He also gets his bread from a Dickinson company.

Young toured Baker Boy in Dickinson and decided to use the local company's artisan bread line at Players.

Also, the pasta products are made of North Dakota wheat — and he made sure the menus were printed here and the uniforms bought here.

He said it's important that if they're going to call their restaurant a Dickinson sports bar that the money stays in Dickinson.

In addition, he has thought up other ways to help — such as the "Cookie for a Cause" idea to raise money for the United Way during the holidays by selling $1 cookies that came with a small bag of frosting and decorations.

He said United Way made more than $3,000 from that.

"Players is slowly becoming a fixture in the community," he said about the 3-year-old restaurant.

He said he follows the restaurant's rankings and it has risen into the top 10 on several popular travel-guide-type websites.

Young said he didn't intend to move here — had never been to North Dakota.

When he pictured the state, he envisioned "grass, wind and (maybe) Teddy Roosevelt in a wagon," he said and laughed.

But he said the restaurant's ownership kept calling and so he flew up to check out the place.

He said Dickinson reminded him of his hometown in Illinois.

"The town was quaint and lovely," he said.

The restaurant was beautiful, modern, the people friendly and open, and the staff young and energetic, he said.

Young decided to take the job.

"I wanted a new challenge," he said.

And he wanted to get his sons, now ages 9 and 10, away from big-city life.

"Putting some grass under their feet, getting them out of the urban environment," he said.

He said the boys have made good friends here, and he and his wife "love the Catholic community here."

His boys had never seen snow like this.

Their dad had.

Young spent his teens and 20s working in Chicago. But he was mainly inside, working in the environment comfortable to him — restaurants.

But at age 30, needing a sabbatical, he took off on his mountain bike, heading for Denver, Colo. He camped during the 1,000-mile trip and stopped at local cafes along the way.

In Colorado, he would manage a microbrewery. He later moved on to other states — including working as food and beverage manager for a company that served Yellowstone National Park's visitors at the historic Roosevelt Lodge and other park locations.

He lived in a cabin in a box canyon complete with waterfall. But for Young and his workers, getting to work was challenging, occasionally, when there was a bear sniffing around their cabins or they got caught in a bison-caused traffic jam.

In Arizona, where he met Lucy, he managed various restaurants.

Now, he's heavily into his North Dakota chapter.

Besides the food, and the 31 draft beers and signature drinks to choose from, there is plenty to look at — like Carson Wentz's autographed NFL jersey, in addition to rooms of other memorabilia.

"It's almost like a sports museum," Young said about Players.

And there are, of course, the constant games on the multitude of television screens.

Young said they stream any game that can be streamed, and they have plenty of room for sports fans and diners. Players has a total capacity of 600-plus.

He said they have a smaller staff since the oil industry slowed down, but customer numbers started stabilizing in spring and summer of 2016. Now, the restaurant focuses on its "bread and butter," Young said.

He said that means, the bank teller, mechanic, attorney and so on, he said.

"This is your community...These are the people (we) have to impress," Young said he tells his staff.

He said Players continues the quest to improve the quality and consistency of the food — and helping to that end is his kitchen manager, Michelle Miller, who has as much experience in the restaurant industry as he does, he said.

He said if a customer comes in to eat on Monday and then comes back on Friday, he wants that person to have the exact same food experience: "Plated the same. Prepared the same."

He said with feedback from customers, he is developing the place into that great comfort-food spot they want — including zeroing in on that just-right coleslaw. Good slaw is important, but particularly now, he said. It's Lenten season and on Fridays, from 5 p.m. on, it's all-you-can-eat beer-battered cod, fries and coleslaw.

In the dessert department, there is nothing to tweak when it comes to the Oreo Stack, Young's favorite dessert.

The Oreo Stack combines a brownie with swirling layers of cheesecake and crumbled Oreos.

Chocolate is Young's favorite food.

"I think chocolate should be on the top of the food pyramid...covering everything," he said.

A new menu is due out in May, he said.

No word on whether it will be a chocolate-covered.

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