Converted from a package liquor store before liquor licenses became run-of-the-mill in this college town, the Alibi has endeared itself to socializing Laramites since it debuted as a sit-down bar and pub. I entered the Alibi at half past eight one morning to meet the owners, Kerri and Ethan Smith.
Kerri tells me about the Alibi, which has evolved with the culture of Laramie since Ethan started running it in 1990. Kerri explained that as the drinking culture has changed to a more social pastime, the Alibi first converted into a sit-down bar and then started serving food.
Kerri and Ethan don't just serve food, however. They serve home-cooked food. I've never seen any food operation that takes "home-cooked" as seriously as Kerri and Ethan do. The Smiths wanted to provide the Laramie community with food that just couldn't be found anywhere else; something more exciting than a chain restaurant.
I remembered seeing Kerri tending bar at night too, and I didn't get the idea that 8:30 was early for either Kerri or Ethan to meet. I also knew that the Alibi kept a vertical garden in their kitchen and sourced their ingredients with care. I suspected that these two put a lot of care into the pub, and I wanted to know more.
The vertical garden, hanging prominently on the wall to our left, seemed a good place to start.The first green wall was hung in the Alibi's modest kitchen in early 2015 and has been expanded since then.
I asked Kerri how they use the produce from the Green Wall.
"We roast our own chickens in the wood fire for chicken pesto pizza and a couple sandwiches that we do with the pulled chicken (we do a chicken caesar). Rosemary, thyme, sage - that's all used on the chickens that we roast. We've played with spicy basil and done a burrata salad with spicy basil as the topping; we did it with nectarines and tomatoes.
"We bake our own bread down here so we do a cheddar and chive bread. Chives are also used in our house-made Ranch. Tarragon is used in our house-made Russian dressing for Rubens. Sheila Bird Farms [a local farmer south of town] provide all of the greens for our salads. Once they start producing other produce we'll do cabbage for sauerkraut and fish slaw for our fish tacos. Cilantro is used in our fish tacos."
As Kerri described the dishes they create with their fresh produce, her face lit up. It was like discussing a precious medium with an artist. "What is it like to produce this kind of food?" I asked.
"It's work, " she told me. "It takes effort. It takes desire. It's not your an hour cook that's coming in. [The vision] has to come from management. It is hard, and it's not a cost savings. It's more expensive to do that. If you have someone who's on a tight budget, can they justify it? It depends. I tell my bartenders that if they don't make fresh sweet and sour for Long Islands or refuse to muddle or use the fresh ingredients, they're going to get fired. That's just not us. [Bartenders] need to be excited that they just made a drink with fresh strawberries, and get the same enjoyment from serving that drink to having people go 'oh wow'. "
I asked Kerri what she had meant about hard work, expecting details on the chores involved. Instead, Kerri told me about creating art.
"The flour that's used in the pizza dough is imported from Italy. The breads that we bake are from organic flours sourced out of Utah. It's definitely a lot of work. We're here fourteen or sixteen hour days making sure that everything is prepared very freshly. It's nice to see people sit up when the pizza arrives, and to continue to get people excited about how fresh and good the food is. It makes you feel good that you're providing a very fresh ingredient for people to enjoy.
"That's the benefit. Being able to make people smile over food. A lot of your chain restaurants don't get those reactions. You go and they're zombies. You eat and leave. It's not an experience.
"We're here to create reactions from people, whether that's in fresh fruit cocktails or freshly prepared food. I want a reaction out of you when you get that fresh fruit cocktail and you realize that real strawberries and real mint goes into that drink."
Kerri was still smiling, and it occurred to me that she and Ethan create something that is no-tricks, straight-up, from-the-core good. And it's not a chore to them. It's certainly not something that they feel shackled to. Kerri summed it up nicely:
"It's going to take work and effort, yeah. But it's what we do."
Kerri and Ethan Smith see locally sourced and self-sourced playing an even larger role at the Alibi in the future. "Completely sustainable" says Kerri about how she hopes to source her food in years to come. I ask her what she thought other restaurants would do.
"In order for it to be long-term, people have to commit to it. It can't be a trend. And I think it will be. For us it will be. For other places, maybe not. Ten years ago they said that micro-drafts were a trend. Well, they're still here."
Ethan pitches in that Wyoming is a step behind in the local food movement. The Alibi, I would say, is at the forefront of the movement in this town, and Wyoming is catching up. It's dawning on people that they want something better from the food system. Ethan thinks that this recognition comes from light being shed on dishonest representations and shocking practices being used in many fast food and even chain restaurants.
"You get a lot of restaurants these days that are putting grill marks on, say, their burgers." Says Ethan. "They don't have a grill. That food it coming in with grill marks on it already and all they're doing is warming it to temperature. It's precooked, then frozen, then reheated. People forgot that they want home-cooking. Nobody in our industry wants to put the time into it."The Alibi Pub cooks it's food with a wood fire, not electricity or gas.
"When we first got into it understood how much time and effort it would take. But it's worth it to be able to say that everything we make is in-house. There's nothing that I get that's pre-packaged. We sauté our own mushrooms, we caramelize our own onions. Nothing is prepared for us, " she says.
Ethan comments, "Most food providers already do that for you. Ninety-five percent of the industry nationwide are doing that already."
Kerri agrees. "Our pesto sauce is made with fresh basil. You can buy pesto. It's easy to buy. It's probably a hell of a lot cheaper and less intensive to do it, but... that's gross."
The changing values of restaurant-goers is evident in the appreciation of Alibi's guests.
Kerri and Ethan say that most of the people that come in truly enjoy the experience. "Ninety-eight percent. There's always going to be those people who just go out to complain."
I'd say that it's more that just appreciation. Kerri and Ethan have a crowd of regulars. If someone doesn't have the time to wait for their food they call ahead. The experience that the Alibi gives it's guests builds relationships.
"People get the energy when they come in here and they see that on the wall." Ethan gestured to the vertical garden hanging on the wall in their kitchen. "They already know it's fresh. Especially when she, " he nods at Kerri, "jumps up there and cuts something off. They're shocked. They've never seen it."
There seems to be a general consensus that the Alibi infuses value into their dishes and drinks. Just check out reviews of the restaurant online. You'll read reviews on TripAdvisor like this one, that hail the unique quality of the pub.
"There are a few good places here, " Says a reviewer. "A couple great places, but there's only one don't-miss destination."