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Little Cafe in the Big Woods

These Parts: How the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder came to depend on one family-owned restaurant for its survival.



When Paul and Carol Hinderlie took over a broken-down bar and grill and reopened as the Harbor View Cafe 25 years ago, many locals were outraged that they'd raised the price of eggs from 15 cents to 20. "Back then," says Paul, "real men didn't eat omelets. And poached eggs? And corned beef hash? I don't think so. Unless it's out of a can--then it's OK." But since then the cafe has become the economic engine of tiny Pepin, a Wisconsin town on the Mississippi River whose only other claim to fame is being the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder. With a staff of around 70, the Harbor View is the largest employer in the county. It's become a magnet for tourists: in the summer months it serves about 1,800 people a week, more than double the town's population of 878.

So when Rebecca Paquette-Johnson, who runs the jewelry store next door, heard that the Hinderlies and their partner, Tom Ahlstrom, were selling the restaurant and moving away, she panicked. Her business is directly tied to the cafe's: on a given day about half of the Harbor View's customers will come into her store. "Anyone who comes to town for a meal at the Harbor View will discover the shops, have to gas up at the filling station on their way home, might stop at the coffeehouse as well, and will hopefully plan to come back," she says. And even though the restaurant isn't closing--Ahlstrom and the Hinderlies are sticking around through the summer, and they hope to sell the business to a couple of longtime employees-- there's still fear that the change could turn things in Pepin upside down.

"If it changes much it could be bad," says Liz Dodd, a cook at the Harbor View for 12 years. "There's enough beauty and other things going for this place to draw some folks, but not in amounts like 300-plus people coming in and spending money on a Saturday night."

When the Hinderlies opened the Harbor View they had little expectation of becoming a community cornerstone. They'd met in 1970 at a Lutheran retreat center in the Cascade mountains where Paul was working as a cook. After they married in 1974, he held a succession of restaurant jobs in Seattle and his hometown, Saint Paul, always dreaming of someday opening his own place. They stumbled across the bar and grill in Pepin after visiting Paul's sister in the Wisconsin countryside. "It needed a lot of work," says Paul. "But it was a real live food-service operation," and its rural location made it affordable. The couple paid $67,000 for the property, putting it together with help from family and friends after the local bank refused them a loan.

"There are shoestring operations, and there are broken shoelace operations, and we were about three steps below that," Paul says. The Hinderlies did all the renovations themselves, installing windows and new flooring and tearing down the dropped ceiling to expose a tin one. After they opened-- on April Fool's Day 1980--business slowly grew. By the time Ahlstrom, an old high school friend of Paul's, came on as a partner in 1983, the bank was willing to give them money for improvements--a credit card with a $50 limit.

But as they scraped by, they were also developing the formula that would lead to the cafe's success. From basic items such as spaghetti and chicken breasts they moved on to more sophisticated fare--halibut with a black butter-caper sauce, pork loin with rhubarb sauce, Danish meatballs in a cardamom-spiced sour-cream sauce. Long before seasonal, locally grown produce and organic meats became trendy, the Harbor View Cafe was buying from area farmers. Paul's been getting his lamb--raised on a maple-syrup mash--from the same local couple for 20 years. These days a dozen farmers and merchants from Pepin and the surrounding area supply the restaurant with vegetables, herbs, meat, cheese, and fish. For some of them the cafe is their only customer.

The Harbor View--and the town of Pepin--got its big break in 1986, when a four-star review of the cafe ran in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It rapidly became a destination restaurant, drawing visitors from the Twin Cities, 80 miles away, and from restaurant-starved Minnesota towns like Rochester and Northfield. After the cafe was featured in Bon Appetit and Gourmet, the stream of foodies turned into a flood. When New York Times critic R.W. Apple passed through in 2002 he praised the restaurant's wine list ("five Ridge zinfandels, for example, and several Calera pinot noirs") and the "delectably lemony" locally grown kale.

The influx of outsiders on a nightly basis has paved the way for community renewal, according to Terry Mesch, the Pepin County development coordinator. The Pepin Marina bustles. The waterfront stores, once empty, now are occupied and busy. Paquette-Johnson's jewelry store, the boutique down the road, and most other businesses in town are open the same hours as the Harbor View and, like the restaurant, shut down from late November through February. Sheryl Coate, who runs the Shoreline Wine Bar with her partner, Kathy Harrington, opened three seasons ago specifically to cater to Harbor View customers stuck waiting for tables. (The wait can take two or three hours; the cafe has never accepted reservations.) Nancy Henderson, who runs A Summer Place, a bed and breakfast on the water, says 99 percent of her clients come to Pepin to go to the restaurant. "The Harbor View put Pepin on the map," she says.

Over the years even locals who were originally skeptical have come around to seeing the Harbor View, and the development that's come with it, as a good thing. They accept that on summer weekends there will be thick traffic and twice as many tourists as townsfolk, and that wealthy urban invaders have begun buying up the waterfront property for retirement or second homes. Mary Wallin, who's owned Ralph and Mary's Restaurant since 1971, says she serves a lot of locals who never eat at the Harbor View, either because of the prices or the fancy food. But that doesn't mean they aren't glad it exists. "People have woken up to the fact that this is what happens," Wallin says. "Beautiful places get discovered, and new people move in."

Paul Hinderlie is pragmatic about the changes in Pepin. "Little towns used to have hospitals, multiple churches, doctor's offices," he says. "If we're going to stay together and there's no longer much of an agricultural community, it has to come from somewhere else. If it has to be service and tourism, well, that's what it has to be. We just have to make sure that those jobs pay enough to keep people nearby."

The Harbor View itself pays well for the area, and almost all the full-time staff have health insurance and pensions, something practically unheard-of in the restaurant business. That may be part of the reason for the staffers' fidelity--ten employees are 20-year veterans, and the majority of the full-timers have been there more than a decade. Judy Krohn, one of the head cooks, has worked there since it opened. "The main thing is the people," she says. "Paul, Carol, and Tom are always generous, always fair." Liz Dodd says that when her mother was in the hospital and she was driving back and forth between Pepin and Saint Paul to see her, "Paul handed me a check for $300 and said, 'Here, you're going to need this for gas.'"

Every year since the early 90s the entire staff has gathered in a beer garden at the Minnesota State Fair to vote on whether to continue operations. This past August the ayes carried, ensuring the present season. But 25 is "old age in restaurant years," says Ahlstrom. He and the Hinderlies reached their decision to sell just this February. They're leaving to run Holden Village, the Lutheran retreat center where Paul and Carol first met.

The town's small-business owners and chamber of commerce may be anxious, but Paul points to the continuity there will be if, as planned, the purchase goes to two Harbor View veterans. "It's like a jazz band where some members are dropping out but the rest keep improvising the same tune," he says. "Or like a touch football game--as the older guys and gals get more arthritic, you get new players in the game."

Even Paquette-Johnson says her fears about the fate of her jewelry store have eased somewhat. The owners of the Harbor View may have put the town on the map, but the thing about maps is, once something's on them, it usually stays there.

Pepin is so out-of-the-way there were no roads there until World War II. Even now it's a bit of a trek from Chicago, about 350 miles or so. To get there fastest, take Interstate 90 northwest to La Crosse, then cross the Mississippi and head north on Highway 61 until you reach Wabasha. Cross back over the river there and continue north on Highway 35, the scenic Great River Road, which will take you right into town. Turn left on Main and head two blocks east to First, where you'll see the Harbor View, a blue building with a red roof surrounded by cherry trees and, most likely, a line of people.

The cafe serves lunch and dinner five days a week June through August; it's closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Reservations are not accepted, and the restaurant is cash only. Entrees run $16 to $24 at dinner, $8 to $18 at lunch.

Harbor View Cafe

314 First St.

Pepin, Wisconsin


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Darin Back.

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