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“We needed a restaurant here on the corner,” said Yvonne Hanson, new owner with her husband John, of JJ’S Steakhouse and Cafe downtown Kenmare. “A place where families could take their kids and eat.”
For Yvonne, the atmosphere in the cafe is all about family. “I have a 19-year-old who works here and a 19-month-old who thinks she’s the mascot,” she said. “We want this to be a family business.”
In fact, the name of the cafe originated with her family, using the first letters of her husband’s name John, son’s name Jacob and daughter’s name Shyla to come up with JJ’S.
Full menu, all day
JJ’S Cafe is open seven days a week from 5 am until 9 pm, with take-out and local delivery also offered from the menu and daily specials while the restaurant is open. “I figured that’s good for the older people who can’t get out,” said Yvonne.
Her menu features a full breakfast list, complete with nine types of omelets and “3 Little Honkers,” a platter of three pancakes with sausage. For lunch, she offers a variety of burgers, sandwiches and wraps, and several sides, including four types of fries and two baked potato variations.
She’s proud of her appetizer list, which fills nearly a page of the menu and includes items such as halibut strips, three flavors of hot wings, two types of quesadillas, and Reuben nuggets. Children have their own menu of breakfast and sandwich selections, at $3.50 per plate. The supper menu features three styles of sirloin steak, pork chops, poor man’s lobster, shrimp, halibut, walleye, chicken and more.
Currently, Yvonne is baking pies, caramel rolls and sweet rolls, with roll dough from Baker Boy. Within a week, she plans to offer more home-baked items, such as bars, cookies and cakes, and within a month she hopes to have homemade pizzas available to serve in the cafe or deliver.
She started a breakfast buffet for Sundays, served until 2 pm. Every Friday’s special will feature a taco bar. She has daily “cook’s choice” and sandwich specials and soups offered for lunch, starting about 11 am each day. The salad bar is also set up, with salads made fresh throughout the week.
Yvonne acknowledged her menu was quite varied, similar to that of the South of the Border Bar & Grill in Kenmare where she was most recently employed as a cook. “I want the same food to be offered to families,” she said.
In keeping with the family theme, every Tuesday will be Kids’ Night, with kids ages 10 and under eating free when accompanied by an adult who purchases a meal. “And on your birthday, for everybody, if you show some ID or proof of your birthday, you can order a meal up to $10 for free,” Yvonne said, adding, “We want this to be some place where a family can come in and relax.”
That invitation extends to holidays. “For Thanksgiving, we’ll be open and have a buffet, with turkey and the trimmings and lutefisk,” she said. “I’ve already got people talking about it. The only holidays we’ll be closed are Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.”
Ready to make
The Hansons opened the doors to the public on October 17th, after leasing the former Choo Choo Cafe from Stanley and Kim Kopp, who moved to
Taking over the operation of her own cafe has been Yvonne’s goal for years. “I’ve cooked in restaurants a lot of times through my life,” she said. “I’ve been cooking and baking since I can remember, and this has always been my dream.”
And she takes her work seriously, examining the menus and atmosphere of other restaurants and considering the prices she herself is willing to pay for the food she prepares. She studied one semester in the culinary program at the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton and learned from co-workers at restaurants where she worked in other communities. She credits her mother and grandmother with inspiring her to learn and love cooking, and these days she gets inspired merely from opening the cover of a new cookbook.
“I can pick up a cookbook now and make anything in it,” she said as she flipped through the pages of a slim book filled with full-color photos of several entrees. “I just got this new one today, and I like to experiment.”
Yvonne is also fiercely judgmental of her own work. “I am a picky eater,” she said. “I teach my cooks how I want things cooked, and then I taste-test their foods.”
She maintained that all potatoes served in her cafe will start whole, not as flakes from boxes, and that her shrimp and other fish will be hand-breaded. “I do everything homemade,” she said. “Cooks who do shortcuts will get in trouble with me.”
Yvonne plans to make most of the salads, soups and daily specials at the cafe, as well as do the baking. “My cooks will do a lot of the line cooking,” she said. “I’m my own worst critic, and I want to make sure things get done right.”
She is pleased to see the cafe almost fully staffed, with Ruth Weigel, Jen Stewart and Doug Sherrodd taking turns with her in the kitchen. Yvonne still wants to hire a dishwasher, but she believes customers will be served well by wait staff Julie Landers, Jacob Moe, Amber Jones and Larissa McGrath.
“My staff is supposed to go out of their way to make customers feel comfortable and relaxed,” she said.
Yvonne hopes that individuals, groups and families who eat at JJ’S Cafe will take time to tell her what they liked and share their ideas for what they want. To that end, she will be setting out a suggestion box for people to use. She also asked to hear any concerns about the food or staff directly.
“I want that communication with my customers,” she said. “Anything at all they want to tell me, I want to know. Our motto here is to make the customers happy.”
She is well aware of difficulties she and her staff faced during the first couple weeks after opening, with unexpected rushes on some days and too much food prepared on others. The long hours of operation have been a challenge as Yvonne has scheduled staff, then found herself spending several hours at the cafe herself even during her time off, just to make certain everything was running smoothly.
“I knew it was going to be a lot of dedication and a lot of hard work,” she said as she admitted to being overwhelmed during the first week. “You’ve got to learn to put your trust in God and keep going.”
At JJ’S Cafe, the door is open, the tables are set and families are welcome to come any time for a homemade meal. “I want to serve people the way they want to be served,” Yvonne said. “I want to make people happy, and I feel this is one way I can do that.”
Check the daily specials or order your meal delivered by calling JJ’S Cafe at 701-385-3100.