The Small Town Cafe That Can: Booming Business Through Twitter and Pie | Characteristic


NEWMAN GROVE – Retired social studies professor Laura Nelson is used to seeing her small town send her kids and dollars to bigger cities.

“We tend to go this way,” to Lincoln and the Omaha subway, where her nieces and many former students live and shop.

But lately, from her seat at the cafe table where she meets friends most mornings for coffee and an omelet, she has witnessed a setback. City dwellers spend their money in his hometown. “The cafe managed to get them here,” she said.

Business is booming for the Newman Grove City Cafe and spreading to its neighbors, thanks to loyal locals but also a growing urban audience. A social network of eastern Nebraska foodies has turned this isolated cafe into a destination, even though it’s a two-hour drive from Lincoln or Omaha and too far away to be spotted on Google Street View.

Newman Grove, a town of 700 people straddling Madison and Platte counties, has no obvious platform for economic development and tourism. It is not the hometown of a famous author; there is no passing National Scenic River, no towering rock monument on the horizon.

But it’s Dawn and Adam Witchell’s adopted home. It was native Omahans who unexpectedly transformed the city’s main artery, Hale Avenue, into a two-way street for commerce.

In 2020, when many restaurants closed, the City Cafe achieved record sales with 30% growth over the previous year. He will beat that sales record again this year.

The Witchells attract cars full of people from the outside, boost business by selling pies in Omaha and beyond, and share the wealth by sending their customers to the streets to explore nearby retailers.

Their success is a testament to the reach of social media, the romance of road travel, and the fact that cooperation – and a sweet slice of lemon meringue – can bridge the growing divide between rural and urban Nebraska.

So on the very Friday that Nelson met his usual 8am coffee group at the cafe for “therapy” – discussing family activities and home canning tips – David and Megan Holtorf drove north- west 120 miles from Omaha for lunch.

David, a financial advisor, and Megan, a commercial banker, met the college friend of David, a commodity broker who lives 24 miles away in Columbus. It was the first “hike” they had intended to take since Megan had heard about coffee on Twitter.

“I just liked the story,” she said. “I come from a very small town. I want to see places like this succeed.

Another four hour round trip for lunch? In an age when you can work from anywhere, you can also take a lunch break anywhere.

David took a working tour on the way up, and Megan took in the scenery: horses, wagging their tails in the shade of a sagging barn; the flash of the yellow breast of a skylark passing in front of the windshield; acres of endless corn bending in the breeze.

After lunch, they lingered at their corner table as the crowded dining room emptied, the doorbell ringing every time it opened. Their hamburger baskets were empty, but the City Cafe experience was not over. The Holtorfs took away a few goodies: a shell of gooey cinnamon buns and a stack of generously sliced ​​scotcheroos. Their friend, David Franzen, has vowed to return; his office is nearby in Humphrey, and he wants to start picking up lunch for the team.

“You can’t find this anymore,” Franzen said. “Every town has a Casey’s, and once you get a Casey’s you lose a coffee.”

To get there, the Witchells swam upstream of the Nebraska Urban Migration.

In 2014, they resigned their jobs in Boys Town, pulled their daughter out of Millard Public Schools, and spent $ 35,000 to buy the cafe from its longtime owner.

Privately, they gave him three years to pass or fail.

Seven years and a second daughter later, they work side by side on a busy Friday, and sometimes back to back, in the tight space between the grill and the prep counter, while the waitress takes phone orders and prepares baskets. of fried cheese balls. .

Adam takes care of the grill, flips an egg too easily, and drapes two slices of bacon over a burger. Dawn squeezes the sriracha mayonnaise onto a toast and wraps it in checkered charcuterie paper.

While they are working, Dawn whistles, sings or talks to a waiting customer: “Hi Aaron! How are you today?”

He waits while she grabs pickles with tongs, arranges them on a bun, closes a foam container, and draws a cartoon burger on the lid with a Sharpie. “Didn’t you want to go back to work, didja?”

Aaron Sauser is parts manager at Lindsay Corp., the manufacturer of irrigation equipment 7 miles southeast of Lindsay. He has lunch for himself and four colleagues. “It is desperately needed,” he said of the coffee. “We have nothing left at Lindsay’s.”

When the midday rush is over, Dawn closes the cash register and walks a few steps from the bank. Adam takes out the trash, hangs up his apron, and grabs the keys to his afternoon school bus ride. The school principal convinced him to help “temporarily” – six years ago. He is also a volunteer firefighter, while Dawn volunteers with the PTO, his church board and the community club.

Looking back on their seven years in business, the Witchells see three steps to success, even though their track record was unclear from day one.

First of all, focus on the locals. They were the ones who filled the wood-paneled dining room for decades, who gave the Witchells the benefit of the doubt when they moved here. That’s why the new owners have retained a total overhaul of the menu – adding trendy poutine and sriracha burgers, of course, but also keeping pork tenderloin sandwiches.

Second, invite strangers. Adam, head of the cafe’s Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts, has his thumbs up to the digital pulse of eastern Nebraska. He harnesses the boundless power of social media to make true friends through friendly jokes and colorful images of Dawn’s daily menu boards.

This network accelerated sales during the pandemic, when the holidays were over, support for local restaurants was in place, and social life shifted online.

At first, revenues plummeted when the state’s response to COVID-19 closed the cafe’s dining room. The Witchells popped in, selling food out the window before the cafe.

It wasn’t long before the takeout was whisked away from town.

Twitter regular Jen Bauer, who had only been to the cafe once, needed to escape her neighborhood of Elmwood Park.

“I was bored, I was just bored, out of my mind,” Bauer said. And she told herself that she wasn’t the only one who could use a slice of pie. “Their food is so good, but their pie is great.” Maybe she could bring a couple back to Omaha?

His whim has become a plan. Adam promoted; Dawn cooks. Soon Bauer had 48 pies in the back of her station wagon, heading to a parking lot west of Omaha Target where she handed them out to people she only knew through Twitter, pie partners.

“I was going to buy pies for my friends and I ended up having about 50 friends,” she said.

The Omaha Pie Run was born, generating more customers and launching new partnerships, urban and rural, that took the coffee business to the next level.

Former Husker Center Matt Vrzal has family in Newman Grove. He got wind of the pie parade and now sells pies at the City Cafe in his Piezon’s pizzeria in West Omaha. Today, about half of the 40+ pies the cafe sells in a typical week are sold in Omaha, adding thousands of dollars in additional sales each year.

Omaha Beer Week was sweeter this year with a beer and pie pairing event with La Vista Kros Strain Brewery. Beer makes an appearance in Newman Grove, in the beer and cheese soup of the cafe.

In a time of division, “We slowly made connections with people across the state, in Omaha, by simply tagging ourselves or supporting small businesses,” Adam said.

In their latest secret to success, the Witchells didn’t amass it. They spread wealth in rural Nebraska, generating business for others in a virtuous circle of commerce.

Their pie is now on sale at a cafe 15 miles west of Albion, a town twice the size of Newman Grove.

They’re boosting small town businesses on social media, retweeting The Mixing Bowl in Gering, Wahoo Bakery, Susan’s Books & Gifts in Aurora.

And locally, the Witchells refer their customers to Sixth & Hale, Bonnie Gerloff’s new boutique from Newman Grove across the street. She in turn refers customers to B&M Antiques and Architectural Salvage, a multi-warehouse picker’s paradise where she buys her own store accessories.

The system also works backwards, she said, recalling the day a Lincoln customer came to town to browse B&M, who sent them to Bonnie, who sent them to the cafe. “I was so proud.”

“The city realizes we have to work together or it won’t work,” said Tom Temme, owner of Shell Creek Market grocery store, a few doors west of the store.

Today, this philosophy extends far beyond the city limits.

Generations ago, cities like Newman Grove were self-sufficient, said Patrick Gerhart, fifth-generation president of the Bank of Newman Grove. Now they need each other.

Newman Grove is thriving agriculturally and on Main Street, he said. But it can’t grow without a bigger workforce, including immigrants, more local kids moving, like Gerhart did, and more people like the Witchells moving in.

Gerhart wonders: will there be opportunities for my children when they graduate?

“The question is the longevity of it.

Dawn wonders about this on a personal level, how to find a work-life balance, when her kids dine too many nights at the cafe, when she works nights rolling pie crusts. When the Witchells had to close their dining room so they could take a family vacation.

“We’re on a treadmill and the speed just keeps increasing, and like, I have to tie my shoe,” she said.

Any solution will involve relying on others, those people who walk through the door of the cafe down the street and five counties down the road.

COVID-19 and the small town cafe remind us: we are always thirsty for connection.

“The place is so small that you can’t help but connect with people,” Dawn said. “You’re in the dining room and we’re in the kitchen, and we’re talking to you.”

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on the investigations and stories that matter.

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