There’s a high probability that every time one patronizes Dusters Restaurant & Gottberg Brew Pub, they come across Adam Roberts.
He’s likely brewing up a new batch of beers, checking on the front of the house or leading efforts in the kitchen. Just don’t call him "Chef."
“I don’t like the word chef because I don’t have any schooling other than the school of hard knocks,” Roberts said. “I’m the guy who takes care of the stuff. I try to take care of whatever needs to be taken care of.”
Roberts has been with the restaurant/brewery since it opened in October 1995 in a former auto dealership building restored by owner Gordon “Mac” Hull at 2804 13th St. in downtown Columbus. In that time, he’s worked his way up and has been serving as its kitchen manager and brewmaster for a number of years.
Of course, it’s ironic, considering it all came about by accident. Roberts admittedly never had any desire to work in the restaurant industry whatsoever when he was younger until he said he got an “ultimatum” from his parents, Rob and Pam Roberts of Columbus, to find a job once he turned 16. His mother said it wasn’t an ultimatum but rather a nudge to a boy who wanted some spending money of his own.
“We told him school was his priority job, but he wanted spending money because he was of the age he could earn it himself,” she said. “We just didn’t want it to interfere with his school.”
Roberts, though, is adamant he remembers it differently. He said his parents told him he had to find some kind of part-time work. Not that it matters – it paid off in many ways.
“I turned 16 and my parents said you are grounded until you get a job,” he said, with a laugh. “So I found a job at a restaurant.”
Roberts and his sisters were born and raised in the Omaha area, where he was often on the go and hanging out with his friends.
“He was never home if he could help it. He would pay his sisters to do his chores for him – that’s what he spent some of his money on,” Pam recalled, laughing. “We lived in a neighborhood where a lot of kids were. A lot of the guys he hung around lived within a two-block radius.”
Roberts and the boys were quite active outdoors playing basketball, soccer and other sports, or swimming in a nearby community pool when the weather was nice. Soccer was an area of particular interest for Roberts as he was pretty good and enjoyed the game. So much so, he made the varsity squad as a freshman at Westside High School in Omaha.
After turning 16 and in search of a job, a teenage Roberts just so happened to land work alongside a friend who was employed at a Howard Johnson restaurant in Omaha. His job was to serve people who came up to a deli-type line by dishing food onto their plates. His role unexpectedly changed early on, though.
“One day the entire kitchen walked out and the GM asked me if I knew how to cook,” Roberts said, noting it set the tone for where his career in a kitchen would take him.
Roberts would go on to work various kitchen jobs, including at Café Dicopia, Market Basket, Spirit World Deli and Cattle Baron, over the next several years. He had been going to the University of Nebraska Omaha for two-and-a-half years because he had aspirations to work in law enforcement while working in a kitchen to pay the bills.
But things changed one day in the early 1990s. He was working as a line cook for The Garden Café bakery & restaurant when he was offered a salaried position – a manager role –and never looked back.
“I decided I liked money better than school,” he said, with a bit of a laugh.
He started out running a store before moving on to opening other ones for the business around the region, including in Kansas City. He did that successfully until 1995 when he decided to make another change.
COMING TO COLUMBUS
Roberts’ parents moved to Columbus in the late 1980s, as his father had gotten a job with Nebraska Public Power District. At that time, Roberts never thought about following them out west.
“I never even knew Columbus existed until my parents moved here,” he said.
But by the mid-1990s, Roberts said he felt it was time to make a change in his life and grow up a bit. So he relocated to Columbus and decided to start taking courses at the local Central Community College campus.
“I thought about a career in electronics,” he said. “I got a degree in electronics technology.”
While attending CCC, Roberts still worked at some local restaurants to make ends meet. His interest in a career in technology and electronics dwindled when he heard about a job opportunity at a new restaurant that was scheduled to open up in the fall of 1995: Dusters.
Chuck Cantrell still remembers when Roberts came in to interview for the sous-chef position at Dusters. Cantrell, who was then the head chef at Dusters, was looking to bring someone in he could rely on.
“He had a ponytail all the way down his back and he was on crutches because he had hurt his knee playing a pickup basketball game,” Cantrell recalled. “But he had the experience.”
So Roberts was hired and worked under Cantrell’s wing.
“Adam was my right-hand man. He was a super hard worker, super dependable,” he said. “One of us was always there, and when it was your day off, we understood that you did not call the other guy unless the place was on fire.”
The two were Dusters’ Batman-and-Robin-like duo for a decade until Cantrell decided in the mid-2000s to pursue a new opportunity in the food industry. He said he recommended to the establishment’s owner that he hire Roberts as his successor. That’s ultimately what happened.
Roberts cited Cantrell as not only a good friend, but a mentor. Since taking the reins at the business, he has blossomed as a leader of the downtown establishment.
You have free articles remaining.
“I treat it like I own it,” he said. “We keep getting better every year. I still write all the menus, price everything out, do inventory and go through the coolers.”
Roberts is known for adding seasonal items to the menu and offering creative yet tasty dishes that range in style. He can’t pick favorites, though acknowledged the steaks and black tilapia are two of the many items he would recommend. Ultimately, everything that makes the menu comes from his No. 1 guiding principle.
“Basically, everything on our menu is how I would want to sit down at a restaurant and consume - what I would like to see on a menu. It’s all selfish needs,” he said, noting he chops the onions in the onion soup because he doesn't like big chunks of onion and bread getting in the way of the broth. “Everything we make is something I would eat myself.”
It’s not just about planning, though. Roberts is almost always in the kitchen working with his team. The staff overall is made of about 30 people.
“I get on the line several nights a week. I’m right in the trenches with everybody; I like to be right where the action is,” he said. “I need to be the hardest worker in the building for them to respect me, that way when I say jump, they jump. If I say, ‘hey I need you to put it out this way,’ they need to see that I can put it out this way.”
His employees greatly respect him for it. Dusters Sous-Chef Matt Marksmeier said Roberts is a hands-on leader and does a terrific job directing the crew.
“He’s an excellent role model. He gives me a lot of freedom to express what I want to do. He gives us the freedom to learn and make mistakes,” he said. “He doesn’t judge you, he lets you be you. He’s great, down to earth. He would give you the shirt off his back if it will help you out.”
A few years ago, Roberts also took on the role of being the adjacent Gottberg’s brewer. He handles all aspects of the brewery – making the beer, transferring it, carbonating and kegging it, among other things.
Like he did with cooking, he reads a lot and was able to master his craft.
“You get people who say this is the way we have always done it, but I always want to know why we do it this way,” he explained of his rationale. “I’m a self-taught cook. I am just aware. I pay attention and I’m not scared to screw up and make a mistake.”
He said a big part of his success at Dusters has been due to all of the great employees it boasts, including his wife, Eryn, who is the business’ general manager.
“She’s a great help. My wife is my partner in crime,” he said, noting she balances the book and leads the way with the front of the house. “She’s fantastic.”
Roberts and his wife have two teenage daughters, 16-year-old Molly and 11-year-old Greta. The girls have taken to his love for soccer, as both play the game.
Molly made the Columbus High School team as a freshman and also plays for the Fremont Soccer Club. Meanwhile, Greta plays for teams in Columbus and Grand Island in addition to swimming.
Roberts enjoys going with them to their practices and watching them compete, noting that they’re also bright students in the classroom.
As much as he cooks at the restaurant, it’s actually something he doesn’t like to do at home. Instead, he said he and his wife, along with their children, enjoy going out for meals when they can.
“A lot of people’s vacations are planned around sight-seeing, but we like to eat and drink,” he said, noting the family will go out and have a nice meal when they’re on the road for the kids’ soccer games instead of ordering pizza as many families do.
Roberts also enjoys golfing, teeing off at Quail Run and Vanberg when he has the time.
GOOD PLACE TO BE
Roberts has been at Dusters Restaurant & Gottberg Brew Pub for 24 years now, but it’s evident he still very much enjoys it.
“It just stuck with me. I just like it, I like the people,” he said. “Everyone should be in the food industry at some point.”
Cantrell is undoubtedly proud of his friend.
“He’s a good man,” he said. “I hope the community appreciates him for what he has done because that is a heck of a run at a very difficult and challenging job."
Roberts said he and his wife would eventually like to get back to Omaha, but stressed that would be years down the road when their children are grown. He said he wishes Columbus was a bit more progressive, but that he really likes the people here. He said Columbus is overall a friendly town.
That fits him well seeing as how he likes being the guy people know they can come to visit and have a beer with in his backyard.
“When he was young, and this is even true today, I could smile at him from across the room and he would smile back,” his mother said. “He’s very strong-willed.”
Roberts is appreciative of his background and experiences but doesn’t look back often. He’s too busy working hard and enjoying his life – whether that’s cooking, brewing beer, planning menus or hanging out with his wife and children, maybe even kicking around the soccer ball with his girls.
“I had a lot of fun, but I am living the best years of my life now and have yet to peak in life,” he said. “Better things to come.”
Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.