How the Oldest Hardware Store in Twin Falls Became A Cook’s Paradise
For a food lover, walking into Rudy’s on Main Avenue in Twin Falls is nearly a religious experience. And for a cook living in a remote location in the midst of Central Idaho, with nary a kitchen supply store within a hundred miles, it’s somewhat akin to visiting the Holy Land. The store has open rafters and an airy feel, walls lined with every kitchen implement and appliance an amateur chef de cuisine could need — microplane zesters, mandolins, tiny cheese knives, olive spoons, stainless-steel storage containers and top-of-the-line espresso machines. In the back is a teaching kitchen space that would be the envy of any home chef, next to a wide selection of specialty beer and wine.
While it seems like an ordinary cooking store, if you ask, you’ll find the entire building — constructed in 1904 — has a history as deep as the lava rock that serves as its foundation, and the owners have big plans for it to play a major role in the culinary future of Twin Falls. Owner Tom Ashenbrener said the store is the oldest continually operating retail store in Twin Falls. Originally named Price Hardware, it sold exactly the type of thing you’d expect until Ashenbrener took it over in 2002. The establishment has previously been owned by his father, Rudy Ashenbrener, who had purchased the business after returning from working as a fighter pilot instructor in World War II.
Price Hardware remained a hardware store that sold some kitchenware for another six decades. Tom Ashenbrener began working at the store after attending the University of Idaho and graduating from University of Oregon. Already, he said, he had the makings of a home cook.
“I just ate a lot,” he said with a laugh. “I also took Home Ec, mostly because I wanted to goof off, but I ended up enjoying it.”
Ashenbrener continued to work alongside his father in the store until 2002, when he and his wife, Megan, took the business over, renaming the store Rudy’s A Cook’s Paradise. “He was a very honest, genuine man,” Ashenbrener said of his father. “In the old store, it was always, ‘My drain is plugged. You sold me this weed whacker and it doesn’t work,’” he said with a laugh. “We were tired of working on people’s weed whackers. Plus, now we get to sell beer and wine, which is much more fun than pesticides.”
It’s eminently clear that cooking is a passion for Ashenbrener. He said he strongly believes in enabling the people of Southern Idaho to have the opportunity to experience different cuisines and cooking techniques. “One of our real missions is to help people stay healthy by cooking at home,” he said. “There are a lot of side benefits when you get families eating together at home. You can have fun, save money and feel better doing it.” As the only cooking store in Twin Falls, and one with an excellent teaching kitchen, Rudy’s has the unique role of being able to actually further Ashenbrener’s vision by offering classes taught by local, regional and national chefs. Ashenbrener will fly in chefs from the Culinary Institute of America once a year; the Wood River Valley’s own Chris Kastner and Cristina Ceccatelli Cook have also served as instructors.. Popular classes include comfort food techniques such as braising, classes on how to talk about wine or how to throw a dinner party. Ashenbrener said his artisanal bread baking classes are still among the most popular he offers. “It sounds simple, but it’s not,” he said. “People still want to learn to bake bread.”
Some of the classes taught at Rudy’s also focus on basic things like showing children how to prepare healthy snacks, peel apples and mak miniature pizzas piled high with veggies. He’s found that sometimes the simplest foods and techniques get the best reaction from people.
“Most people are so inept at cutting an onion, it’s unbelievable,” he said. “When they’re done making something, and it tastes good, you can really see the joy. When you get a really simple, well-made product, like perfect scrambled eggs, you think, ‘Wow, what’s in this?’”
At the same time, however, Ashenbrener is always pushing the boundaries of the role his cooking store can play in the community. While he said he’s not sure the Idaho food scene will ever match that of Portland or Seattle, he can help bring culinary diversity and innovation to the Magic Valley.
“We try to push the envelope, develop the willingness to explore new things,” he said. “The old joke among my father’s friends used to be, ‘the answer’s no, now what’s the question?’ I’m always excited when we get to do something that changes that mindset. It’s exciting to see our market grow and change.”
As a result, Rudy’s has become more than a “kitchen store” — it’s a cozy, central location for those who love food to gather on this often stark, sagebrush and lava rock plain. Every month, Rudy’s hosts “First Friday,” an event featuring free food, live music, beer and wine by the glass that draws people in from around the entire Twin Falls area — and not just aspiring chefs. Ashenbrener said he wants Twin Falls residents to view this building as a focal point of the downtown area.
“It gives them a feeling of a sense of place,” he said. “We want you to feel happy in your own town, like there’s a forum for the community. That’s one of the things that sets us apart.”