The 220 gallons of sauerkraut fermenting in the backroom of the western Minnesota cafe was supposed to be the start of something bigger in Brent Olson's small-town experiment.
He revived the old cafe in Clinton, Minn., with the idea of serving eggs, sausages and flapjacks in the morning and then opening the commercial-grade kitchen to local entrepreneurs who wanted to kick-start their own businesses. It was a novel enough idea that it won the 62-year-old former pig-farmer-turned-writer a $75,000 Bush Foundation fellowship.
"If this model worked, there are a thousand small towns with church kitchens or school kitchens or cafes that are open just half the time," said Olson, who promised to run the cafe for four years and vowed not to walk away from it until he found a new owner.
Five months after his self-imposed deadline, Olson is handing the keys to the Inadvertent Cafe to a new owner while he steps back to figure out what worked and what didn't.
As a cafe, the business on the town's Main Street was a success, and Kris Grooters, 37, of Clinton, is taking it over in hopes of expanding it. "Over the years, it became a big asset to the community," Grooters said. "It's important to keep it open."
But to Olson, the Inadvertent Cafe's broader purpose was to provide space to entrepreneurs who wanted to kick-start "value-added food businesses" without having to sink their own money into a commercial kitchen.
For instance, it became a place for one man to churn apples from his family's orchard into 1,000 gallons of organic cider.
"He processed it, stored it and sold it out of here," Olson said. "There's not much money in apples. But if you add some value to it, then it becomes a business."
Same goes for the sauerkraut maker.
"I had four 55-gallon drums of sauerkraut fermenting in the backroom for three months," Olson said. "That made me nervous."
If the lids blew, he figured he would have to close shop. "I don't think of sauerkraut as the quintessential breakfast food," he said. "I wasn't sure how it would go with crêpes and blueberry waffles."
It never became an issue. "He's done it two years in a row and he sells it all out," Olson said.
The cafe's kitchen also became a place for families to can summer tomato harvests into spaghetti sauce and salsa.
"My whole intent was to use the cafe to just cover the overhead so that the kitchen would be available free of charge," Olson said.
He had hoped there would be more people like the cider and sauerkraut makers — local residents who had business ideas that could earn a few thousand dollars.
"That can make a difference for some," he said. "A lot of people out here string two or three jobs together in order to make a living."
In praise of community
After he hands the new owner the keys, Olson, a 12-year veteran of the Big Stone County Board, said he'll have more time for writing, which is how he earns part of his living.
"Every minute I was [at the cafe], I enjoyed it," he said. "But to take 30 hours out of your week for free is kind of daunting."
Still, he'll miss the community the cafe created.
"There's Lester, who is 89 and comes in every morning at 5:30 after walking a half-mile on the treadmill. He has a cup of coffee while his pulse settles down," Olson said. "There are a couple of guys named Larry and others who I became part of their lives. … And there's a young guy named Eric who comes in and we talk politics. I'm kind of bleeding-heart liberal and he's less so. We're pretty much opposites, but we enjoy finding things we can agree on."
After his last shift in the kitchen, Olson, who lives 8 miles from town, probably will stay out of the cafe for about a month.
"This will let people get used to the idea that it's her place," Olson said of Grooters. "But then I'm going to have to go in for breakfast a couple times a week to stay caught up with people."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788