CLINTON, Minn. – Brent Olson unlocked the cafe’s door at 5:45 a.m. and strode straight to the refrigerator, grabbing the butter and maple syrup. He ground coffee beans and switched on the pot. He hadn’t yet lit the “Open” sign when, at exactly 6 a.m., his first customer arrived.
“Hey, Dougie,” Olson said, smiling.
Olson, 61, never intended to run a small-town cafe. He’s a writer. A county commissioner. A former pig farmer. But on this morning, like most, he found himself hovering over the hot grill of the Inadvertent Cafe in this tiny western Minnesota city of 450 residents, cracking eggs and browning sausage he made from scratch.
Olson grew up going to this Main Street cafe and, a few years ago, decided the area would benefit from its reopening: It would support the grocer across the street, offer an alternative to convenience store doughnuts and give farmers a place to make food products they could sell. So he pitched his idea to the Bush Foundation, winning a two-year fellowship, and promised to operate the cafe for four years.
Now, with that four-year end date fast approaching and Olson growing weary of his 5 a.m. alarm, he and others in Clinton are trying to figure out whether this small-town experiment can survive without foundation money. Or him.
“I don’t know who else could step up and do the cafe in the same way,” said Kathy Draeger, a regular at the restaurant and the statewide director of the University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships. “I think that cafe is both a ministry and a love letter to the community.”
Olson’s decision to run this place, 13 miles from the South Dakota border, has a lot to do with his farmhouse 9 miles in the other direction. He feels fortunate to live in that old house, built by his great-grandparents, and in Big Stone County, a swath of prairie that has lost a quarter of its population over the past 25 years, bringing it to about 5,100. His “painfully overdeveloped sense of responsibility” keeps him working to deserve the joy of living here, he said.
The experiment also makes a good story, as shown by Olson’s next book, “The Inadvertent Cafe.” And Olson loves a good story.
Making a living
“The place has been a cafe since 1926,” Olson wrote in the book’s introduction. But it had been closed for a few years when Olson’s father, Curtiss, told him to do something to help the struggling grocery store across Main Street.
At the time, the Land Stewardship Project, with grant funding and help from residents, had been trying to bring the cafe up to code. Olson spent a winter tiling the kitchen.
But as Olson tells it, the do-gooders’ efforts “ground to a halt” — something others dispute. So he went to the Bush Foundation with the plan and won a $75,000 fellowship. The committee was intrigued by a man of his age, working as a writer, wanting to start up a cafe, said Martha Lee, who then led Bush’s leadership program.
“Why would he suddenly want to try to take this on?” she said. “And I think people were really inspired by that.”
Olson has spent much of the money on kitchen equipment. After adding things up — including $12,000 to install a stove hood — he quickly realized he couldn’t afford to hire someone to run the restaurant. So he learned to cook from studying Mark Bittman’s book, “How to Cook Everything.”
Olson’s bread recipe? Page 832. Brownies? Page 881.
“It’s a strange place to find myself at the age of 60,” he wrote. “My beard smells like bacon, and my hands smell like soap. I fret about expiration dates on pancake batter and whether or not people are getting tired of ginger-molasses muffins with cream cheese frosting.”
Olson used to fret about weather forecasts and soybean prices. For 25 years, he raised pigs on the land his Norwegian relatives homesteaded in 1880. Farming allowed him and his wife, Robin, to raise three kids there, alongside horses and cats. Olson began writing, selling stories to publications aimed at farmers and Methodists. His weekly column now reaches about 1 million people.
“The reason I became a farmer is because I wanted to live here,” Olson said, standing among prairie grass and pine trees he planted. “I became a writer because I wanted to take a whack at it.
“And everything else I’ve done since then is because no one else would do it.”
By 6:30 a.m., a table full of men drank coffee, ate bacon and told tales. Olson knows their stories — their grandparents’ stories too — and when he recounts the best of them, his blue eyes get wide before he lets out a single, loud laugh.
There’s Lester Hanson, 88, who walks on the treadmill at the gym next door before coming inside for coffee, to let his heart rate settle before the drive home. Beside him sat Charlie Stattelman, 24, who returned to Big Stone County after college and has used this kitchen to press apple cider. Across the table, Cal Lillehaug scooped up the $5 eggs and hash, knowing hours of shingling were ahead.
Lillehaug, 54, has eaten breakfast here every working day he could for 35 years. If it were to close again, “It would crush me.” He left cash on the table — Olson only deals in cash and round numbers — and said goodbye: “Time for me to get on the roof!”
Others linger for hours, taking coffee refills and talking with Olson between orders. “I can’t imagine this place without him, because that’s the draw,” said Craig Carlson, who travels to the area for work.
Olson is an introvert, and chatting through the cafe’s hours — 6 to 10 a.m. — can drain him. His favorite moments come when he’s cooking in the kitchen by himself, he said, and hears the room laugh. “And I’m not in it — I haven’t been performing and caused it,” he said. “But I know I was an agent in it.”
On this day, like others, he had help: Amber Karges, with Main Street Industries in Clinton, a day training and rehabilitation facility for people with disabilities, smiled as she served muffins and washed dishes in exchange for minimum wage and tips.
But more than three years after flipping on the “Open” sign — “the only advertising I ever did” — Olson is tired. Tired of having to write late at night, the only light coming from his computer screen. Tired of negotiating small-town tensions.
Members of the group who tried to reopen the cafe years earlier remain angry, some residents said. During that time, Olson noted, none has purchased so much as a cup of coffee.
“People felt like the project got hijacked,” said Terry Van Der Pol, a director for the Land Stewardship Project. “I hope that people get over that, quite honestly,” she added, because such hard feelings “can be real deadly for a small community.”
Olson charges just $5 a breakfast and hasn’t paid himself in two years. But he can imagine how to make the cafe profitable: partnering with more farmers, producing his own jams, offering special, $25 paella dinners. “But I think of myself as a writer,” he said. Running a cafe is “not what I yearn to do.”
Instead, he pictures a young person taking over, perhaps living above the cafe, removing the boards from the second-story windows.
“I’d give it to somebody,” he said. “If someone came in and said, ‘I’ll commit to doing this for two years’ — I’d give them the keys.”
Each corner of the cafe reveals a bit about Olson — from the bathroom counter he built using reclaimed wood to the photographs on the wall, many taken by his daughter. A board that might have displayed the day’s specials instead features his grandchildren’s doodles. Old images of Clinton line the counter, including a black-and-white shot of Main Street in the 1950s, packed with shops and cars.
Today that street is dotted with empty lots and storefronts, said Randy Stattelman, who owns the lumberyard. “But we’re trying to hang on.”
At the morning’s end, Olson wrapped in plastic three bowls of dough rising for the next day’s bread. He subtracted the day’s bill from a regular’s tab. He tossed his apron onto the counter. But by 10:30 a.m., a group of women remained, talking and laughing.
“Do you guys want to stay?” he said. “You can go out the back door if you want.”
“If you don’t mind,” said Draeger, the U director, “I could hang out until my boys are done with baseball.”
Olson didn’t mind. After telling Draeger how to lock the back door, he went out the front, switching off the sign, and jumped into his truck.
Then he drove the 8.7 miles home, to the house his great-grandparents built.