EDITOR'S NOTE: This is another story of a multiple-part series that highlights some of South Dakota's best small-town eateries. These stories will run through the summer as tourists are traveling South Dakota, looking for places to stop and eat.
ETHAN — The building that houses the Ammo Box Bar and Grill in Ethan was originally built in 1900, and since its construction, it has been a community destination as a watering hole and a place to stop in and grab a bite to eat.
“Since Ethan was incorporated, this building has been the local bar,” said Sam Beeson, who co-owns the Ammo Box with her brother, Brent Summers.
Thanks to Beeson and Summers, the building will continue to serve as the local bar and grill for some time to come. The pair of Mitchell natives took over the business in early 2020 and have since poured money, planning and sweat equity into the upgrading and modernizing of the local gathering spot.
Beeson said she moved to Ethan from Mitchell about seven years ago to get closer to the small-town atmosphere. When the opportunity came to purchase the downtown staple in the small community of about 300 people southeast of Mitchell, she knew it was vital to keep a place like that.
“Most small towns like this, when their bar dies, their town dies,” Beeson said. “I moved down here for the town and for the people. And I kept going around and said this town can’t lose this. So I took a leap of faith more for the town than for myself.”
Once Beeson and Summers acquired the place, they quickly set about taking stock of what needed upgrading. Their analysis revealed that pretty much everything needed it. Beeson said the work they did focused on everything from the bar itself to the floor and the kitchen.
“We gutted the place to the brick and started over. You could have fallen through the floor,” she said.
Summers, who along with Beeson and several other members of the family, worked long hours over a few months to do as much work as they could. Beeson and Summers are also co-owners of Mitchell Iron and Supply, and Summers took time off specifically to dedicate to working on the Ammo Box renovations.
“We did probably 90% of the work ourselves. Myself, my father, mom and sister would go to work at Mitchell Iron and then in the evening we would be down here. I actually took a month and a half off work there and strictly came here. I’d work throughout the whole day into the evening and they would meet up with me and we'd work until about 11 p.m. Then we’d go home, go to bed and then go back to work,” Summers said.
The aim was to give the space a more modern, open layout that would allow for maximum seating for restaurant dining. The floor was patched and raised to level it out. The bar, which was original to the establishment, was removed and a new one was built in a more centralized location of the dining room. A structural engineer removed part of a wall, more or less connecting two separate rooms that were previously separated by a narrow doorway.
They chose the name Ammo Box due to the family’s military background, which dates back to the American Civil War. Summers currently has 14 years invested in both the South Dakota National Guard and the South Dakota Air National Guard.
It was a work in progress, Summers said, and they weren’t entirely sure how it would turn out while they were in the process of renovations.
“When we tore the place apart, we didn’t even know what it would look like. But once we got the paneling in, the ceiling and finally got the bar built, it started pulling together and it looked amazing,” Summers said.
The results speak for themselves, as what was once a typical, aging small-town bar transformed into a new, modern local gathering spot where people can come together for dinner, drinks or a round of pool, darts or video lottery.
People responded to the new look and ownership with approval and patronage, even though the Ammo Box opened for business during a rough period for the restaurant industry.
“We bought it in February of 2020 and in April of 2020, we opened. The worst time in the entire world to open a bar and restaurant,” Beeson said.
The COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in April 2020, and bars and restaurants around the country struggled with keeping their establishments open in light of social distancing recommendations and other factors that had to be taken to ensure the safety of their clientele. The staff took all the precautions they could in spacing customers out and extensive sanitizing and made the best of a rough situation.
Again, uncertainty set in. They were doing all right, but they didn’t really have anything to compare their business to, being new to the restaurant game and having the only establishment of its kind in Ethan.
“We did everything else people would do. We’d seat people far apart, we had our sanitizers,” Beeson said. “And in June, we had our grand opening, and we had a big crowd, so we were all outside. We had to try to take as many precautions as we could.”
A little more than a year on from that grand opening, the vision is a little more clear. A recent Wednesday evening saw the dining room filling up fast by 6 p.m., and people of all ages mingling and conversing throughout the room. The bar and grill has taken on the hosting of several fundraiser events over the past year, and the public has embraced the atmosphere and the food.
“You sit around here for another hour and you won’t be able to move,” Beeson said of the expected evening crowd.
The bar has a selection of domestic beer and frozen drinks, such as piña coladas, which have been popular due to the intense summer heat South Dakota has been experiencing this year. And the menu features a variety of dining options like burgers, pizzas and an item that has grown unexpectedly in popularity: the patty melt.
“Everybody loves the patty melt. I’m not sure what I do differently, but on a night like (this), we will easily make 20 to 30 patty melts. It’s crazy. They must be delicious,” Beeson said.
They also added homemade pizza to the menu, which has already gained a following amongst regulars. The Ammo Box pizzas are made by hand when ordered, and are topped with fresh meat and vegetables.
“That was kind of something I always wanted when I would go to a bar. I hated walking into a bar and paying $12 for a Totino’s pizza. It drove me batty,” Beeson said.
Fellow family members help out with the constant stream of customers, some cooking in the kitchen, some working as servers and others wherever they can, Beeson said. It’s a family affair that hints at what they wanted to cultivate at the Ammo Box. Beeson and Summers wanted the Ammo Box to be a place where people could bring the family for a night out, and making that accommodation has also helped with businesses. Kids are welcome well into the evening before the place takes on a more traditional bar atmosphere later at night.
“This town is a family town, so we wanted to make this into a family-oriented place where you could bring your kids until 10 p.m. or so,” Summers said.
The restaurant has enjoyed a good response from out-of-towners, as well. Last hunting season saw visitors from around the country, and more are expected this year. A short jog off Interstate 90, they also see people wander in after a long day of traveling cross country. They have one individual from Kadoka — a more than two-and-a-half hour drive — who comes in specifically because the bar has Miller 64 beer on hand.
“We’re the only place that he’s found that carries it. He seems to really like it,” Beeson said with a laugh.
Beeson and Summers said they’re pleased with how far they’ve come and are constantly on the lookout to add new menu items, bar selections and other features their customers are looking for. And they do get suggestions, many of them good ones. Summers said it’s a matter of making their way through the list to decide what would work well at the Ammo Box.
As it stands, the future appears bright for the new bar and grill. They plan to continue hosting fundraisers for the local Team Mathis non-profit group, which puts together scholarships for seniors at Ethan High School every year, and the local street dance, which hasn’t been held in several years, is expected to return. They also work with Reclamation Ranch near Mitchell to benefit their equine therapy program for veterans and police officers with PTSD.
This coming Sept. 11 will see the Ammo Box host Helping with Horsepower, a military appreciation event on Main Street in Ethan.
There are several reasons to show up at the Ammo Box. The food. The drinks. The people. The fundraisers. Beeson and Summers hope that other folks will wander in and discover what locals already have. That’s good for the business and the community, Beeson said.
“It’s good for the city, it’s good for us,” Beeson said. “I think the town is excited for it, and there has been a lot of great response to it, and everyone is excited to have events rolling back into town.”