City bands together to ensure gathering spot remains
By Terry Lehrke, News Editor
Breakfast is said to be the most important meal of the day, and in a small town, that may be especially true — if eaten in the local cafe. That’s where a body learns what’s going on in town.
In July 2000, Swanville’s only cafe — the Corner Cafe — burned to the ground during the annual Mid-Summer Carnival and the townspeople found themselves without a cafe.
In July 2001, some business people began to put together a plan and made phone calls, asking residents to purchase 35 shares for a community-owned cafe.
On April 29, 2002, the cafe opened for business. It was quite a process to get to that point.
Initially, 68 people bought the 35 shares. Of these 35 shares, 27 were full shares, 16 were half shares. Only 35 votes are allowed in the co-op, so those who own half shares had to decide who gets to vote.
A five-member board is elected each year and runs the Swanville Restaurant Company LLC. It’s that company that owns “Granny’s Cafe,” named after Elizabeth “Granny” Gessell and dedicated to all of Swanville’s “Grand” mothers and grandmothers.
The first board included Chief Manager Bruce Johnson, Jim Piekarski, Robert Koetter, John J. Gessell and Bernie Wilkens.
“It all started because there was no gathering place in town,” said Neil Hagstrom, a current board member for the LLC.
After the shares were purchased and the company formed, the old Gessell building across the street from the former Corner Cafe on the corner of DeGraff Avenue and Third Street was chosen as a cafe site. The building’s history dates back to 1886 and was once a saloon, a restaurant, a hardware store and finally an office building for the Gessell Feed Mill. Its history, as well as that of Granny’s Cafe is outlined on the cafe’s menu.
Once the building was purchased, it was cleaned up and remodeled — with a lot of volunteer help from the community.
The original ornate metal ceiling was refurbished. Later, a large meeting room was added. All different sorts of clubs use that room, as well as those throwing parties. The local Relay for Life team uses it as a site for its fundraising garage sale.
The walls are lined with historical photos of Swanville, and with photos of the remodeling as it took place, with frames made by John Gessell. He too was instrumental in refurbishing the ceiling.
Still today, hundreds of volunteers have a hand the cafe’s success.
A group of women that call themselves “The Grannies” decorates the cafe according to the seasons. They even dress up and take part in parades and at area events.
A guest book is available for visitors to sign and to make comments, good or bad). It has been signed by visitors from every state in the union.
Lowell Drager, retired educator and local historian, while not a board member prints the menus and is the author of the history of the cafe.
He noted that the cafe uses fresh ground beef from Bob and Fran’s Grocery store across the street. One of his favorite menu items is the “Granny Burger,” using that fresh ground beef, with lettuce, tomato, onion and thousand island or barbecue sauce.
Glenn Palm, a current board member, said he prefers the home cooked noon dinner with mashed potatoes and veggies.
Julie Hollermann, the appointed treasurer for the business, said the patty melt and omelettes were her favorites.
Board member Joanne Doroff loves the fried chicken.
Hagstrom enjoys the barbecued ribs.
Outside of the food, Drager said one of his favorite things about the cafe is what he calls the “community round table.”
The table is literally round, but Drager said it’s the idea that anyone can sit and join whoever is at that table. “There are no restrictions on who can sit there, or how many,” he said.
People from all walks of life are welcome are welcome to sit at the table, he said. “Anyone without a chair can just pull one up,” he said.
Board Member Sandy Frieler is the head cook, and oversees the part-time staff, according to the Board’s wishes. All employees answer to the Board.
“You won’t find one business out of 100 that is run like this one,” said Palm.
The Board said it has been approached by other small communities who have lost a local cafe and expressed interest in how Swanville’s co-op cafe is run.
Hagstrom said the odds are a new restaurant with a single owner will fail within the first five years.
The Granny Cafe co-op style of business must be doing something right, he said, as it celebrates its 10th anniversary, April 29.
The Board points to the involvement of the community as the biggest reason for its success — both in volunteer time and in patronage.
“It really does take a village,” said Hagstrom.