ERSKINE, Minn. — Just a skip past U.S. Highway 2 and a bump over the railroad tracks, the Ness Cafe has been a staple in the heart of Minnesota lakes country for going on 106 years.
In the restaurant that's nearly as old as the town itself, thousands of platters piled high with double-scooped mashed potatoes, thick-cut roast beef and rich, homemade gravy have passed through the swinging kitchen door since 1912.
"Everything's made fresh here, so we go through a lot of potatoes," Tommy Helgeson said. "We bake them, we mash them, we steam them, we chop them for American fries. Everything's fresh. That's why when we mash them we leave a couple of lumps in there. That way they know they're real potatoes."
Tommy, along with Stephanie Helgeson, make up only the fourth set of owners in the cafe's long history — a history that spans the years of late-night crowds spilling from the Maple Lake dance pavilion, the carhop craze, the bowling alley bonanza and even a disastrous fire in 1963.
Tommy and Stephanie bought the restaurant in 2004 from her parents, Diane and Michael Hoeft, who bought it in 1967 from Bob and Aimee Ness, who bought it in 1947 from brothers and original owners Carl and Andrew Ness. Carl was Bob's father.
If that's all a bit confusing, Diane will tell you there's really only one thing you need to remember.
"We'll never change the name, and we'll always make everything homemade. It's tough sometimes when you're busy, but I would never use canned gravy. No, that would be the easy way," she said.
And Stephanie says no one ever could accuse her mother of being lazy.
"Mom's kind of semi-retired, but that doesn't really happen. She's here every day," Stephanie said.
In fact, Diane and Aimee — who is now 88 and still working at the cafe one day a week — are the Olympic champions of Pairs Potato Paring. Each week, they peel at least 300 pounds of potatoes, enough to keep the whole town in tubers and potassium. Diane's potato salad has been a by-the-gallon best-seller at the cafe for 50 years.
"We've become a fixture, Aimee," Diane said on a recent Saturday.
"I know I am, whatever," Aimee shrugged as they shared a laugh.
One big family
The owners and former owners recently took a moment between the breakfast and lunch rush to sit down and talk about the good times, hard work and how it is they think the cafe has come to live up to its "an oldie but a goodie" motto all these years.
The plate-glass window out front bearing Ness Cafe's royal-looking, blue-and-white logo also exclaims it's "air conditioned" in large, fancy script.
No doubt an attraction at one time, cool air can't be the only reason it has been a decades-old hot spot to dine on hand-pattied burgers, gravy fries and strawberry malts. And not the only reason to belly up to the oddly zig-zagged coffee counter for a sticky caramel roll or a slice of Helen Bertsch's sour cream and raisin pie.
They figured a better explanation for the cafe's longevity would be everything that's old-fashioned: comfort food, great service and genuine community friendship. All three are just as polished as the cafe's own green-checked, wax-shined floor.
"We've been fortunate over the years to have good help," Diane said.
Stephanie agreed: "They care about the place, and they care about their customers."
And from Tommy: "They're reliable, and they know people. Missy will say 'Bob's pulling up,' and Steph will know to put on one egg, two strips of bacon and a pancake."
He was talking about longtime waitress Missy Galland who flits back and forth between kitchen and tables, amiably visiting with customers. Not only does she know everyone by name, she often knows what they want to eat before they do.
The 26-year veteran started at the cafe, as most others do, as a young teenager.
"The people make it what it is," Galland said. "They're like my second family. It's a great place to work."
Diane knows this is true, though she says she once dreamed of a different life. As a fresh graduate of Erskine High School in 1967, she said she had had enough of small-town life and couldn't wait to hang up her waitress apron to head to the big city. She worked for Bob and Aimee back then, but the first chance she got, she cashed in her tips and hopped a bus to Minneapolis to see her sister and find her future.
On the return trip, she immediately hit a snag.
"I came into the cafe and Mike said, 'Will you stay and work for me? I can't find anyone to work.' I said, 'I won't spend another winter in Erskine.'"
She, of course, turned out to be wrong about that. She and new-owner Mike fell in love, and he soon proposed marriage in the cafe parking lot.
"That was 1967, and we got married in 1968. The rest is history. I never left," Diane said.
Can't stay away
The allure of the cafe seems to be common among patrons and workers alike. Whether it's the food or the friendships, they keep coming back.
Nick Neibauer and his mother, Edna, barely had doffed their coats and settled into the corner booth recently before Galland was there to pour the coffee, straight-up black. The food — a half hot beef, and an egg, bacon and plate-sized pancake — arrived just minutes later.
"It's quicker than McDonald's. You don't wait around for food very long. Not here," Nick said. "You order, and it's here in short time. And it's quite good."
The pair say it seems like forever they've been coming to the cafe.
For Nick, forever is 67 years. And for Edna, even longer. She turned 100 in September.
"We've had an awful lot of fun," she said. "It's really enjoyable."