FLOYD COUNTY — Adversity is something that Sam Anderson has been used to his entire career.
The certainty of facing obstacles in life was impressed upon Anderson at a young age. He learned early on that it wasn’t just about clearing the hurdles that lay ahead, but about coming out on the other side better than before.
“My father always told me that with every adversity comes opportunity,” he said.
At the age of 25, Anderson decided to make his name in the restaurant business. He had been involved in the industry just about his entire life, working all the way up from busboy to management.
That journey culminated in 1984, when Anderson opened Sam’s Food & Spirits on Payne Koehler Road in New Albany, just off of Charlestown and Blackiston Mill roads. Now, nearly four decades later, he is stepping away from what he built, having sold the restaurant in February.
“Back when we started the restaurant, there were only a couple places to eat in New Albany, like South Side Inn, Steinert’s and Tumbleweed,” Anderson said. “We thought we had an opportunity to do a bar and restaurant kind of thing.”
While the Charlestown Road corridor is much more developed nowadays, Anderson said it was considered the outskirts of the city when he opened up shop. Past McDonald Lane, Charlestown Road was quite rural, with a horse farm sitting near the current German American Bank and more farmland extending all the way across Interstate 265 towards Sellersburg.
Despite being on the edge of town, Anderson said he was able to pull people in from around the city.
But adversity didn’t take long to arrive. In fact, it showed up on the very first day, as the grand opening coincided with a snowstorm.
Things were taken up a notch in October 1987, when a dump truck plowed through the building.
“A little over two years later, we were put out of business,” Anderson said. “We were able to rebuild and come back stronger than before. That’s what we’ve always done — make it better than before.”
Anderson used the rebuilding process as an opportunity to expand his operation. A large bar area was added to the structure.
“Dinner-tainment” was incorporated into the design. With the rise of channels dedicated to 24-hour news and sports, Anderson knew people would jump at the opportunity to eat and drink with eyes fixed on the latest and greatest televisions.
“We were able to put these TVs that weighed up to 400 or 500 pounds up in the corners of the room,” he said. “It was quite a feat. Today, you can get a 60-inch TV that weighs 30 pounds.”
Sam’s then began to evolve from just another restaurant into a community cornerstone. It was a place for people to come have a drink while watching their favorite sports team or for a whole family to enjoy a night out.
In 1991, another expansion came with the opening of a second location in Floyds Knobs. Highlander Point was a blossoming shopping center at that point in time, and Anderson wanted to replicate the success he found in New Albany.
The area along Interstate 64 was growing quicker than the far reaches of Charlestown Road, and more people were moving up to the hill. Thus, an opportunity was recognized.
“We wanted to be out in front of where growth would happen,” Anderson said. “We thought it was far enough away to where we wouldn’t cannibalize the New Albany location.”
Like the New Albany spot, the Sam’s in Floyds Knobs started off small before growing into something more than a place to eat. Anderson and his team were able to build a large following.
This was credited partly to Anderson’s relationship with Floyd Central and New Albany high school athletics. Both schools brought with them large groups of fans, alumni and family, and Sam’s eventually became the place to be before and after games.
“We became part of a social network, which put us in a unique position as an independent restaurant,” Anderson said.
The years went on, and the restaurant continued to find success. While the regulars from around the area could always be found at Sam’s, a special visitor made an appearance in the 2000s.
President George W. Bush came through the doors, almost unexpectedly, as Anderson had anticipated a normal business party. That day, Anderson was able to spend a couple hours in the presence of a sitting president, even discussing his own prior political ambitions.
“I told him that I had the unique opportunity to lose an election twice,” Anderson said. “He asked me how I did that, so I told him that I lost the primary. Later on, the candidate actually passed away, so I got put on the ticket for the general election, then I lost that, too. He looked at me and said, ‘I see you’re a lot more successful in the restaurant business than politics.’ It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
As was common in Anderson’s life, more adversity would soon follow. The next punch came in the form of the Great Recession of the late 2000s.
While many businesses in Floyds Knobs took a hit from which they’d never recover, Sam’s survived, though Anderson did transition to a smaller building at Highlander Point in 2010. What came next would mark the end of his presence as a restaurateur in New Albany.
In 2014, the original Sam’s on Payne Koehler Road went up in flames. Anderson did not attempt to rebuild the location, instead moving to Clarksville for two years.
The Floyds Knobs location became the sole Sam’s in 2016. Business has continued to click, Anderson said, with events at Floyd Central still bringing in crowds.
According to Anderson, the linchpin of the longevity and success of Sam’s has been his loyal workforce. Over the years, he said he’s strived to not only make Sam’s the best restaurant, but to make it the best restaurant to work.
After 36 years, Anderson is ready to move on to a new chapter in his life, with Chris King of New Albany having taken over the operation. All those years were spent by Anderson working to provide Floyd County with an establishment that has its own unique hometown feel, and many would agree that he succeeded in doing so.
“I’m taking the chance to step back a little bit and do some things personally and work on some goals and passions,” he said. “Too many people work all their life, then all of a sudden their retirement was too short. I’m not necessarily retiring, but I’m downshifting and trying some new things while I still can.”