Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale anchored the corner of 4th Av. S. and 7th St. in downtown Minneapolis for more than 50 years. Star Tribune file photo, 1960. 

The following story, written by Minneapolis Star staffer Peggy Katalinich, ran in the Oct. 28, 1975 edition of Taste.

Exceptionale: Charlie's daily repertoire calls for artists, maestro

Editor's note: What makes Charlie's run? To find out how the large and successful retaurant at the corner of the 7th St. and 4th Av. S. works, Taste Editor Peggy Katalinich spent two days getting in the way in the kitchen and wandering through the basement storerooms, the bakery and butcher shop.

By 7 a.m., when most of the civilized world is just awaking, 50 gallons of stock are clarifiying, racks of duck and ribs are slowly roasting and a woman attacks a bushel of boiled potatoes with her peeler.

Meanwhile, the baker slaps down the dough that will later that day fill hundreds of bread baskets. Four workers patiently feed tablcloths through a giant press, readying the day's linen.

Before taking over the reins, Louise Saunders was not aware of the intricacies of her husband's precise machine. "A few tables, a chef somewhere behind the doors frying a steak, that's all I knew," she said.

Now she sits at the master controls, the maestro of the orchestra, her description for the 320,000-meal-per-year restaurant better known as Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale.

"This business is constantly with you; I can only get away from it when I'm in a tough bridge game," said Mrs. Saunders who left a succesful law practice to run Charlie's when her husband, Charles Saunders, died in 1964.

"It's addicting, just like cigarettes," she added. "An astute friend once told me, 'Louise, you're married to that restaurant.' And this is my family," she said, sweeping her arms over the 358-seat restaurant (221 upstairs in banquet rooms).

Charlie's Cafe owner Louise Saunders, in a 1974 Star Tribune file photo. The restaurant closed in 1982 and was replaced by an office tower; Saunders died in 2003.

Her family includes 41 waitresses, 14 waiters, four captains (including the first and only woman to hold that position) and maitre d' plus other personnel  - a total of about 175 with pay checks totaling more than $1 million each year [about $3.9 million in 2009 dollars].

Employer turnover at Charlie's is lower than the national average for restaurants; Mrs. Saunders attributes that to the family attitude.

For instance, Joe Peterson, beverage manager, has spent 40 years at Charlie's in a variety of positions and during those 40 years has been nurturing the mint plant in his back yard that furnishes the mint in Charlie's julep.

Maitre d' Henry Bathke, with almost 22 years, has the difficult job of seating customers and seeing to it that they are happy with their seats; sometimes as many as 700 pass through from 5:30 p.m. to closing. "And I've only had two customers stay mad at me over the years, that was when I refused to let them drive home."

A restaurant is responsible for keeping drunken patrons off the streets, and sometimes Bathke appropriates the keys, sending the customer home in a cab.

Customers also can prove unruly by walking off with Charlie's equipment. One fellow attempted to walk off with a new bar stool and was quite surprised to be stopped by the policeman on duty, Mrs. Saunders recalled.

Then there was the time when a customer took a candle that worked only by being recharged, she continued. His waitress followed and informed him of the candle's limitation. "Well," he asked, "where's the recharger?"

Incidents such as these are the exception, but Mrs. Saunders does require the waitresses and waiters to be responsible for missing steak knives. In addition, they must memorize eight pages of single-spaced typed instructions on how to wait on Charlie's customers.

Plus, they must be strong. This writer buckled when she tried to lift one of the trays stacked with four sirloin dinners.

But there are rewards. For every four-hour shift they work, they receive a meal. The crew on at breakfast time whips up some ham and eggs, while the baker comes through with sweet rolls for employees' eyes only.

An undated Charlie's postcard.

Executive chef George Lisovskis, who started in 1955, says he skips meals at Charlie's. "After working all day around food and testing all the sauces, I just want to go home an relax."

Lisovskis, who was trained at St. Paul Vocational and in restaurants in Europe, trains most of Charlie's cooks himself. "It takes about a year before I can leave them on their own," he said.

Food preparation runs in two cycles; the morning shift starts early and works through two, while the evening crew comes in at three and must be ready to go by five.

The six cooks on the first shift are responsible for building the stocks and sauces to be used throughout the day. By 10:30 a.m., the tempo in the kitchen picks up as six pots of sauce simmer on the range, while Frank Hegyi, who does most of the "heavy" cooking, turns over meats cooking in the ovens below. It seems to be at least 90 degrees in the line where soups are made and foods broiled.

"If you think this is hot, you should see it in the summer," Lisovskis said. "It gets up past 100; I've even passed out myself. We keep rotating cooks so they don't get overheated."

As partial compensation, cooks on the line are allowed to drink beer. "My eyes just sparked when I found out about that," Mrs. Saunders said. "But I calmed down after I found out that's an old tradition."

Charlie's kitchen is frequently asked for advice; Walter Schubert, head night chef, said recently there were requests on how to cook snapping turtles (and got an offer of same) plus how to prepare lion meat. He had answers for both.

"But I was stumped a few years back when a customer asked for French-fried ice cream," he said. "I had no idea what it might be, and it bugged me.

"Nine months later, I found the answer. Took a little leftover Doboshtorte [a classic seven-layer chocolate cake], wrapped it around ice cream, rolled the ball in an egg wash, then in chopped almonds and froze it.

"The next day I went and French-fried it and topped it with a warm marshmallow sauce. Maybe I should make some more up," he said.

French-fried ice cream was on and off the menu a few years ago. Mrs. Saunders revises the dinner menu about four times per year; the luncheon menu can be changed daily.

"We're finding that people's tastes have changed recently. Mostly because of concerns for weight and cholesterol," she said. "We're selling more fish than ever before. We're also selling the smaller cuts of meat, and our standard sirloin was cut from 16 oz. to 14 oz. No one needs to eat a pound of meat."

Roy Sternal, general manager keeps track of the top-selling meals. "In May, for instance, the best-selling meals were fillet, prime ribs, roast pepper rib eye, lemon sole, sirloin and pike," he said. At lunch, the Cedric Adams sandwich [turkey and mushrooms in a light cream sauce over toast - it's on the menu at the Lexington in St. Paul, and it was named for the longtime Minneapolis Star columnist and WCCO Radio personality; Charlie Saunders and Adams were close friends] nosed out pike as top seller.

Sternal plots the number of meals sold the previous year to help estimate the expected sales, taking into account the weather and conventions. An unexpected rain, hosever, can throw a wrench in his well-laid plans. In another file, he has charts showing costs for raw ingredients. While Mrs. Saunders would not release specific figures, the charts show only an upward pattern over the past two years.

"But we're still in an affluent society as far as cuisine is concerned. People are willing to pay for quality," Mrs. Saunders said.

At Charlie's cusomters are paying for the additional cost of making virtually everything from scratch. The woman peeling the potatoes costs more than prepackaged already cooked, peeled and sliced potatoes.

"But we don't buy those potatoes; they have a funny taste due to the additives," Lisovskis and Mrs. Saunders agreed. Most of the food served at Charlie's is fresh - a tiny stockroom of canned goods attests to that.

Back in the kitchen at 11:15 a.m., the activity has coalesced; the rolls are in place, tables set, sauces completed, roasts ready. The surprising calm of early morning has turned into a frenzy of clattering pans and hissing broilers.

Mrs. Saunders' production is about to begin for the world outside the kitchen doors.

Go here for the recipe to Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale's fabled potato salad.

What are your memories of Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale? Share them in the comments field.

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