When Eric Labraaten bought Hutch Cafe from the family that’s owned it for the past 53 years, he had concerns. Not about the building or his business plan, but like other regulars to the Hutchinson restaurant, he was worried about missing his favorite downtown diner.
“I grew up with the family, I know all their kids who were my age,” Labraaten said about Hutch Cafe owners Angie Jergens, Maureen Ziemer and Teresa Plombon. “I grew up going to school with them, playing sports with them here in town. I’ve been in here since I was a kid, coming and eating lunch in here with my friends.”
Labraaten will be spending much more time at the restaurant beginning June 15 when work begins on his new business venture, River House Kitchen + Drinks, which will replace Hutch Cafe after it closes June 9.
As an owner of other local businesses, such as ACC Midwest Transportation and Auto Xpress, Labraaten said he’s long been interested in buying Hutch Cafe. He likes being on Main Street "in the middle of things" with other downtown bars and restaurants. But he made it clear, he only wanted to buy the restaurant when the sisters were ready to sell.
“I didn’t want to be the one to shut down the Hutch Cafe, so to say,” he said. “That’s what I kept telling them, ‘Listen, I have ideas, I have a business partner,’ I talked about it, but I did not want to be the one to shut down the restaurant that I eat at two or three days a week.“
When the sisters recently decided it was time for a change, Labraaten was happy to buy the business and help them move on to the next chapter in their lives. Now he and his partner, Ray Zeuli of Hutchinson, are also excited for their next adventure to begin.
“It’s going to be a bar and grill, serving food and drinks,” Labraaten said. “We’re still going to be doing breakfast, lunch and dinner, which I know a lot of people were happy we’re going to continue doing breakfast.”
While Labraaten runs several businesses, this is his first restaurant. That’s why he’s glad to have Zeuli as his partner, who has 25 years experience managing and working at local restaurants.
“He’s got great experience and lots of great ideas,” Labraaten said. “He and I really jive well with our vision of what we’re seeing for the environment. He’s a great cook and has great ideas about the type of food we’re going to be bringing in here.”
The duo have big plans for the building ahead of what they hope will be an Oct. 1 opening of the new restaurant. They’re not looking to open the next sports bar. In fact, they don't even plan to serve keg beer. Instead, they’re planning a relaxed, family environment to welcome customers of all tastes.
“We want our old usuals to come in and still feel welcome," Zeuli said. "But we also want to create a new guest experience.”
While plans are still being made, Labraaten said the restaurant will look much different from what it does today. They also have future plans to remove the upstairs apartments and include that level of the building as part of the restaurant. There are even thoughts of a patio or rooftop dining, but everything is still conceptual as they work with the city and health department to see what’s possible.
“We’re going to change the atmosphere a lot,” Labraaten said. “We’ve got big plans for a remodel. We’re not quite sure yet. The architect is currently drawing out our plans. … It’s going to be a big, big change. There’s going to be lots of walls coming down and opening up as much as we can to make more seats available.”
Of course one of the things that brought people to Hutch Cafe for years is the food, and there’s good news as there are plans to incorporate some of the local favorites, such as the ribs and kraut and chicken, with new menu items.
“(Angie Jergens) showed me the bible of secret recipes her dad wrote,” Zeuli said.
“They’ve been secretive to give the recipes away because they want to pass them down to us, so that’s great," Labraaten said. "We definitely plan on using some of their recipes and implementing it with the new stuff we plan to bring in.”
Along with some of the old favorites, the new restaurant plans to serve soups, salads, gourmet burgers, paninis and sandwiches, wood-smoked chicken wings, pasta and other entree specials featuring seafood, steak and more. With all the menu items the focus will be on quality.
"I see more people coming out saying, ‘I like the homemade food,' not the corporate world where everything is microwaved,” Zeuli said.
And of course there will be breakfast favorites for the regulars, but they also want to create a brunch feel with mimosas and bloody marys.
“That’s a big thing here, and so everyone is happy to know we’re still going to be serving breakfast,” Labraaten said. “I think we plan on hopefully keeping the same customers they have now happy, but also bring in a bigger group of customers with the drinks and specials that we’ll do in the morning to make us a little different from the other places in town.”
So while Labraaten and others will miss the days of sitting in Hutch Cafe’s booths to shake dice, eat breakfast or just talk, he and Zeuli are hoping River House Kitchen + Drinks will bring in new customers while keeping all the familiar faces happy.
“We’ve got people who come here every day, and this is what they do, so there are a lot of sad people who are going to hate to see (Hutch Cafe) go, including myself,” Labraaten said. “But we hope to bring something special and new for the community and Main Street.”