Seth and Elizabeth Lintelman thought their longtime dream of owning a restaurant in southern Minnesota had slipped away with their home when they lost it in the bad economy last year.

But now, just a few months later, the Minneapolis couple can call the Cup N' Saucer in Sherburn their own, thanks to a businessman and a three-page essay.

Their delight at having their own restaurant mirrors the town's joy of having their beloved town cafe open again.

The happy connection came about when Gene Scheppmann, 77, who grew up in the area, heard the cafe had closed its doors early last year. He decided to help. He and his wife, who now live in Las Vegas, spent six months cleaning and repairing the cafe with the intention of giving it away. He partnered with Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato to come up with a way to do just that.

The solution: an essay contest.

"We lost our home in November and then in March we saw this article about how you can enter an essay contest to win a restaurant, and we're like, 'Oh all right. What do we have to lose?' " Elizabeth said.

After an interview process, the Lintelmans won in early May. They sold what they could, packed the rest and moved in with Seth's parents in Fairmont, about 15 miles east of Sherburn.

The cafe officially became theirs June 1.

'We need a place like this'

The Cup N' Saucer, started in 1953 by Pat Hansen, was a staple in Sherburn, a town of about 1,100 on Interstate 90 in southern Minnesota.

"There were several cafes in town, but this was the place," said Carron Klukow, 74, who remembers coming to the Cup N' Saucer after ballgames when she was in high school in the '50s.

For years, Hansen catered the residents' weddings, parties and events. She cooked a free meal for families after a loved one had died.

And every day at 7 a.m., a group of men sat around a table in the cafe to discuss the latest gossip and news, said Swede Theobald, a daily patron for almost as long as the restaurant has been open. The cafe's original counter is now in his garage as a workbench.

"We need a place like this in town," Theobald said.

But in January 2011, the Cup N' Saucer closed.

"It was hard because for one thing, the morning crowd didn't have any place to go," said Swede's wife, Mickey.

The men gathered at Subway, but it wasn't the same. The women ­— two groups who got together over coffee at 8 and 9 a.m. daily ­— met less often.

Other than Subway, the only other option for food was the town's bar — until October when Scheppmann reopened the Cup N' Saucer.

"This town owes him a great deal for opening this place," Klukow said.

A new lifestyle

The Lintelmans won the cafe because of their background in restaurants and management and their desire to be part of a rural community, Scheppman said.

Seth, 32, the cafe's chef, was the executive sous chef at the Lafayette Club on Lake Minnetonka for the past nine years, and Elizabeth, 29, has a master's degree in business administration.

Seth feels strongly about their daughter being raised near family in a close-knit community and learning the farmer work ethic at a young age, just as he had.

People ask Elizabeth how she'll adjust from city life to a small town, but she's excited: "I like the slower pace."

As important as food quality and prices are, the most important thing, Scheppmann said, is the Lintelmans' ability to blend into a new community.

"They want to see their businesses succeed, and so I think they've really rallied around us," Elizabeth said.

That showed this week when the Theobalds brought them some of their rhubarb, which they used in an upside-down cake and a crisp.

A new menu

The Lintelmans want to use fresh produce from farmers in the area for as much of their food as possible ­— something that Seth says not enough restaurants are capitalizing on.

"I pulled these out of my dad's garden yesterday," Seth said, snacking on leftover slices of radishes he had used for Thursday's special: pork loin chop with spaetzle tarragon, butter-roasted radishes and orange vinaigrette.

He ran out of the special before the modest lunch rush was done.

His biggest hurdle is making people understand there's other food out there. It's a balancing act between giving patrons what they expect and introducing them to new foods.

"He's a very good cook … We would never have anything like this," said Klukow, as she took a spoonful of her carrot ginger soup. "He's trying some new things, which is good."

Looking forward

Scheppmann did little advertising, Elizabeth said, so right now their customer base comes from word-of-mouth. They hope to get more people in, and believe the town can support their business.

The cafe is open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. They would like to expand their hours, but the first step is to update the kitchen.

Seth cooks with a four-burner stovetop and an oven that sometimes works. Although it ties his hands a bit, he said he makes do.

But these are minor hitches in a chance of a lifetime. Seth said finally calling a restaurant theirs is a great feeling.

Added Elizabeth: "It feels like home."

Lydia Coutré • 612-673-4654