PIPESTONE, Minn. – The old glass door to Lange’s Cafe has been repaired, its hinges replaced. But not once in 55 years has it ever been locked.
After an addition in 1961, the twin brothers who owned the diner dropped the keys in the wet concrete, proclaiming, “Here’s to never closing.” Telling the story decades later, owner Steve Lange gripped the door’s red handle and grinned, knowing that they’ve kept that promise.
For 60 years, this cafe has been open 24 hours a day, every day.
Set in the southwestern corner of the state, at the confluence of three highways, Lange’s Cafe has survived by appealing to both truckers and townies, farmers and foodies. Lange, who took over for his father and uncle in the 1970s, has updated the till but has stuck with traditions others have abandoned. The noon special is still listed on a ribbed board, its white letters switched out nightly. Each day, cooks peel potatoes for mashed potatoes. Portions extend past the plate’s edge.
“We’re still serving threshing crews,” said Lange, 68, referring to the farmers, albeit fewer now, who come in midday.
The restaurant’s 60-year anniversary — which they’re celebrating for 60 days — is made more impressive by the falling number of family-run cafes open around the clock. Some close for a few hours at night, others shut down on holidays and “a fair number we have lost,” said Dan McElroy, of the Minnesota Restaurant Association. The venerable Mickey’s Diner, which opened in St. Paul in 1939, might be the state’s only spot that has Lange’s beat.
“Fifteen years ago, more people were doing what we do,” said Peg Lange, Steve’s wife and the cafe’s co-owner. “Now, in a sea of chains, there’s not a lot of full-service, independent restaurants — and certainly not those open 24/7, 365 days a year.” She turned to Steve and laughed: “ ‘Cause that’s what you call crazy.”
Serving early risers
Just after 6 a.m., Jim Carstensen walked in, grabbing the newspaper.
“Jim, you want your usual?” a waitress asked.
“Please,” he replied.
Carstensen has eaten breakfast at Lange’s for 20 years. His order — the “1,1,1,” as he calls it, or one toast, one bacon, one egg — isn’t on the menu, but it’s in the register.
“You’ve seen a lot of small towns where those cafes have closed,” said Carstensen, 65, a contractor and groundskeeper. “We’re pretty fortunate to have this.”
When it opened, this cafe boasted 14 stools and six booths. Since then, the Langes have expanded and renovated both the restaurant and the bakery out back. But half those stools remain.
Only three times has the restaurant stopped service — for the funerals of Lange’s father, uncle and mother. Lacking a way to lock the door, they had an employee alert customers.
At one point, the family owned seven businesses in Pipestone. Steve Lange learned to cut meat at his dad’s meat locker, where they let the teenager handle the hamburger but didn’t trust him with steak. At their boat business, he upholstered boat interiors, a skill he has used to fix the cafe’s booths. And he helped his mother peel and core apples for pies.
She was the cafe’s first baker, making double-crust pies in the basement of their home. The caramel roll recipe dates to Lange’s great-grandmother, who also gets credit for the sour cream-raisin pie.
‘New life’ by pie
That classic pie — once thought of as “the pie your grandpa or your dad would order,” as Steve put it — became key to the restaurant’s future.
That’s because Jane and Michael Stern, authors of the “Roadfood” books, loved it. Describing it as “sweet with the sour-cream edge that makes its sweetness all the more potent,” they declared it “the best sour cream raisin pie ever made.”
Instead of selling just a few pieces of the meringue-topped pie on a Sunday, Lange’s now sells dozens. “We’re so thankful to them, because they gave us new life,” Peg Lange said.
Today’s foodie culture “is a great boost” to cafes like Lange’s, which serve regional specialties, Michael Stern said by phone. Customers are more “eager to find interesting, good … food in all kinds of restaurants — shacks and diners and dives,” he said. But “the economics of being open 24 hours a day are tough,” he said.
For decades, Tobies Restaurant and Bakery in Hinckley, Minn., was open 24 hours a day. But late last year, because of “staffing issues,” the restaurant started closing from midnight until 6 a.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays, said Chris Hickle, 47, who owns the restaurant with his parents.
“The main thing is trying to find employees who are overnight people,” he said.
Darlene Iler brought the glass pot of coffee and a handful of creamers to the one booth occupied at 11 p.m. on a recent weeknight.
“We’ll do an infusion here, huh?” she said with a smile.
Iler, 70, has worked the night shift — from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. — for 40 years, laughing with truck drivers, night-owls and regulars she knows by face, if not by name. She has no plans to retire, saying: “Maybe if the guy upstairs is gracious, I can keep on doing it until I’m 80.”
Steve Lange, who greets customers in a dress shirt and tie, hopes to work another decade, as well. “Your customers, in a small community, they really become your friends,” he said. “Some of them I pick on more than others.”
“A lot of them pick on you,” Peg Lange shot back, laughing.
Until recently, the cafe’s future was uncertain. The couple have five children between them, but “I don’t think they ever want to run a restaurant,” Steve Lange said.
Yet when they weighed the design of their new blinking sign, they committed: It features a clock and the words, “OPEN 24 HOURS.”
“We thought, do we want to keep doing this?” Peg Lange said. “Are we crazy enough to keep doing this?”
In April, they announced that the cafe’s manager, a Pipestone native, would become a partner. Ryan Mollema, 31, grew up going to Lange’s and worked there as a server. His brother was a dishwasher, his sister a waitress. His aunt and four cousins worked there, too.
“We like to make it a family affair,” Steve Lange said. “So he knew what he was getting into.”