LUSK — Nestled among rolling plains nearly 50 miles from the interstate, Lusk, a community of about 1,500 on the eastern fringes of the state, takes Highway 20 travelers by surprise.
Rushing down the two-lane highway into town, Lusk emerges rather suddenly from the fog hanging over the prairie, the town an oasis of brick amid the open fields of Niobrara County, the least-populated county in the state.
Lusk — a surprise in its own right — is full of surprises for such a diminutive community.
Despite being ranked 34th in population out of Wyoming’s already small towns, its historic downtown features a Carnegie Library, one of 16 in the state, and a Tesla Supercharger, one of 10 across Wyoming.
And on the town’s main drag, visitors will be surprised to find the best Best Western breakfast offered in all of North America.
That’s no small feat as part of a chain that in 2017 saw its hotel breakfast ranked highest in the country by J.D. Power’s North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Index Study. Walking into the rustic, well-appointed threshold of the Lusk Best Western, it quickly becomes apparent to a seasoned traveler that few properties take the most important meal of the day as seriously as this one. Greeted at the front desk, lodgers are ushered by the front desk clerk into the well-lit dining area where granite countertops host a menagerie of mouth-watering options. Each guest gets the same tour each morning, the desk manager explains, with a hotel-appointed guide walking visitors through a selection surpassed only by those at the types of venues purpose-built for excess — the strip-mall buffet seen in towns across America, for instance, or the reservation-only brunch spread at a local guest house.
The tour for any guest — it seems — is necessary, given the almost overwhelming selection that awaits them.
To the far left sit carafes of orange and apple juice. Next in line: your carbohydrates, which include a selection of English muffins, biscuits and an assortment of bagels, as well as white, wheat and rye bread. Next, a bowl of fresh fruit, followed by a burrito station including tortillas, a tray of veggies and a crock of green chili, which can be dressed with your choice of eggs (cracked fresh every morning), sausage, fried potatoes and bacon. Then there’s the waffle and pancake station — featuring two types of batter (plain and another flavor that rotates daily), six types of toppings, and several syrup options. Bookending the mouthwatering expanse — which spans nearly 20 feet of counter length in all — is the steel cut oatmeal station, which adjoins the yogurt and cereal options more befitting of standard continental fare.
All of this takes an hour to prepare, front desk manager Jordan Cabotage said, during which the two-person crew still needs to keep an eye on the front of the house for guests checking in, checking out and looking for information.
“We have to multi-task pretty well,” he said.
The story of how a breakfast bar in rural Wyoming — isolated even by Wyoming standards — rose to become the best of the Best Westerns began several years ago, with the dreams of owner Tom Wasserburger, a million-dollar renovation and a motorcycle trip to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
At the time, the Lusk property — a charming, wood-sided campus off Main Street — had a breakfast ranked in the top 100 of all the hotel’s chains, an impressive distinction for a franchise where breakfast is not just standard — it’s regulated. A Best Western spokesperson told the Star-Tribune that corporate dictates minimum offerings for each of the chain’s 16 brands. Complimentary breakfast is a requirement, unless the hotel has an on-site full service restaurant that serves at least two meals.
Made even more impressive was the venue in which the Lusk hotel managed that success.
“We basically did all this in a hallway,” he said.
But top-100 wasn’t enough and Wasserburger decided to seek out the best. At one point, he visited a property in Napa, California — a consistent winner — to see the breakfast there and, several years ago, he saddled up his motorcycle on a long-distance ride to Tallahassee, Florida, to see how the chain’s best breakfast was done.
“I stayed there a couple nights, and they didn’t know who I was or anything,” Wasserburger said. “I just paid attention to what they did.”
Then came the adjustments. A wall was knocked out and the room was renovated. The spread expanded. Investments were made. Fifty miles away on Interstate 25, a sign advertises “chuckwagon omelettes” (served off a genuine 1890s chuckwagon) and, hundreds of miles away, billboards on unfamiliar roads beckon long-distance travelers to an oasis on the prairie with good food served hot in a place few would expect.
The results have paid off: Wasserburger said 60 percent of guests to his hotel book another stay there later on, and when first-timers come in, they often say the breakfast was the thing that brought them there.
In a greater sense, a plate of eggs served well might be the catalyst the town needs.
While isolated on a map, the town is a frequent stop for tourists and motorists coming to and from the Black Hills of South Dakota or bound west for Yellowstone. It’s a game Wasserburger — like the minds behind tourist traps like Wall Drug or any mom and pop shop on the fringes of the tourism industry — knows the nature of all too well: Come for the breakfast, stay for the quilt shop, the antique shop and the flower shop downtown.
And maybe have lunch at the pizza shop on the way out.
“I guess that’s what we’re doing for economic development,” Wasserburger said.