Soup’s on at Wakonda Cafe Community effort creates new eating establishment

Soup's on at Wakonda Cafe Community effort creates new eating establishment by Randy Dockendorf For the hungry visitor, Friday's menu at the Wakonda Community Cafe provided plenty of choices.

The noon special featured meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy, peas and a bun for $4.75.

Have a sweet tooth? Try a slice of banana, cherry, coconut or chocolate fudge pie for dessert or coffeetime. Maybe you prefer a blizzard, sundae or shake.

But the food isn't the only thing special about the 49-seat cafe which can be adjusted to hold 56. The townspeople are not only customers but owners of the operation.

When a fire destroyed Wakonda's only cafe two years ago, the Wakonda Development Corporation raised nearly $60,000 to build a new cafe. The WDC then deeded the cafe to the town's board of trustees.

The new cafe, which opened in February, has filled a major hole in this Clay County community of nearly 400, said Warren Kuhler, Community Club chairman and Development Corporation member.

"You need five things for a strong community � a good school, cafe, bank, churches and post office," he said. "A cafe is where people get together. We really needed it."

The Development Corporation kicked off the fund raiser in April 2002. They were stunned at the rapid response, not only from the community, but from far beyond the town's borders.

"We wrote a letter to people, saying they had the opportunity to help us out. We have received some pleasant surprises," he said. "We have marveled at the amount and how we have raised it in a short amount of time. People have done a tremendous job."

Once the ball was rolling, donations flooded in, Kuhler said.

"People were glad to be part of it," he said. "The alumni contributed 10 percent of the amount, with donations coming from all over the nation."

The Development Corporation decided to raise 30 to 40 percent of the goal before breaking ground. That amount was on hand within six months, so ground-breaking was held Oct. 9, 2002.

After having given from their pocketbooks, community members again gave to the new cafe with the sweat of their brow.

"We hired people for a few things, but it was mostly volunteer labor. Dave Ganschow organized things, and it took 10 weekends to finish all the work," Kuhler said. "We started with crews of 10 to 15 volunteers, and by the end it was up to 15 to 20 people."

Before starting construction, the Development Corporation needed good managers to make sure the cafe became a success, Kuhler said. "We wanted to find the right people to run it. We didn't want a big monument just sitting on Main Street," he said.

Roger and Marsha Steffen entered the scene, pursuing their dream of running a hometown restaurant. The Steffens are leasing the cafe from the town with the option to buy.

"I worked at Joe's Sub Station over by Lesterville when I was 9 years old, cleaning the bathrooms and working my way up the ladder. I began working at the Fryn' Pan Restaurant in Yankton when I was 14 years old," Marsha said

"Then I got married and had kids, so I ran a daycare for nine years. I was a veterinarian's assistant when the kids were in school, but I still wanted to run a cafe."

Besides working at the Wakonda cafe, Roger decided to keep his "day job" at the Alcoa manufacturing plant in Yankton.

"My schedule works pretty well," he said. "At Alcoa, I work four 12-hour days and then have four days off. I work here at the cafe on my days off at Alcoa."

The Steffens work in tandem, with Marsha serving up orders while Roger waits on tables. They wear matching T-shirts with "Steffen" on the back, made by the neighboring Dakota Screening.

The Steffens are helped by their children, Ashley, Brian and Chelsey, and niece Tiffany Ganschow. JoAnn Ganschow taught Marsha Steffen how to make the homemade pies served daily.

The Wakonda cafe is open seven days a week, 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays.

"We are also hosting wedding rehearsal suppers, and every two weeks we have a Sunday buffet where we get 85 people from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.," Roger Steffen said.

The cafe has enjoyed steady business since opening Feb. 1, Marsha Steffen said. The open house in mid-February drew more than 300 people, a sign of the solid area support.

"People are surprised to hear that we had all this volunteer help. They think it was just some pre-fab place which was slapped together. Everything was donated. It's hard for people to take it all in," she said. "But people were so fired up, they were ready for a new cafe and they just came out and helped us. Everything went very well."

Business has steadily grown, Roger Steffen said. "The number of customers keeps going up and up. The slow days are done."

The cafe has its regulars, from the high school seniors on noon break to the business people and senior citizens.

"Breakfast has picked up a lot the last two to three weeks. We started off with eight breakfast orders, and now we are up to 15 to 30 breakfasts. Then around 8:30, we start seeing the morning coffee crowd," Marsha Steffen said.

Customers also come from the surrounding communities, she said.

"We have 85 people on Saturday for lunch. On Sunday, we have quite a few people here for lunch and dinner," she said. "We have people drive over from Irene, Viborg, Centerville, Vermillion and Yankton.

"We had a great turnout for prime rib, even though there was 10 inches of snow outside. The surprising thing is that we don't have any signs up to advertise the place. Everything is word of mouth."

The cafe has kept Wakonda's momentum going strong, Kuhler said, noting the nursing home has built a $250,000 addition, and Main Street has added a screen printing business and a cabinet maker. In addition, the town has raised $50,000 for the school gym floor and $55,000 for the pool through the annual Cornstock festival.

"The cafe is a nice gathering place. It's so great to have it here in town," he said. "This community has really been on a roll the last year."

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