If you're looking to generate comments on social media, all you have to do is announce the closing of a favorite tavern and that will do it.
After almost 16 years of ownership, the Dick Burgart family posted on Facebook this past week that they were closing the Bonfire Bar & Grille in rural Litchfield. The response was rapid and heartfelt. Fans bemoaned its passing, reminiscing about good times and favorite meals such as prime rib night and the best chicken strips and steaks.
Although many may attribute the business' demise to Gov. Walz's mandate that closed restaurants during the holiday season, Burgart said that wasn't true. It was a more mundane reason — their kitchen manager gave notice and that was it.
“We were forced to close May 16 to June 10 and Nov. 20 to Jan. 10,” Burgart lamented. “Although the closures had a huge impact on us, that's not the reason we closed the bar. It had nothing to do with that. As I said in one of my posts on my Facebook page, my kitchen manager wanted to pursue other things. I don't cook and I never cooked. I didn't want to know what went on in the kitchen. We had the determination when she wanted to leave, we decided to close.”
It was never on Burgart's wish list or radar to own and operate a restaurant. His background was in financial services. It's what brought his family to Hutchinson in February 1975, when he was transferred here by Community Credit to take over when Bud Maynard left. From there, he went to First National Bank, which later became Marquette Bank and then Wells Fargo. He stayed 10 years. After that, he took a year's sabbatical to try something new. He worked in the computer field for Jerry Cornell and Duane Hoversten. In 1985, he returned to banking at First Federal. He retired in 2005 when Firststate Federal was sold to MidCountry Bank.
Suzanne's career was in education. She taught in Winsted and then in Hutchinson as a special education teacher. About the last 10 years of her teaching career she was a team teacher of ninth grade humanities at the high school.
Neither of them were looking for a new challenge but stepped up to help their son, Justin, when he bought the Bonfire on April 1, 2005.
Suzanne decorated the place and Dick pitched in to help one or two days a week. This changed with Justin's death Nov. 12, 2013. They stepped into run it.
They employed 11 people most of their tenure, including four cooks and seven bartender/servers, plus Dick.
“It's been a great experience,” he said. “As much as I preferred not to do it, it was a good experience. No qualms about it. We've had some wonderful, wonderful patrons. We appreciate everything they've done.”
Burgart credited the rural eatery's successful to the quality of its food and the customer service provided by the staff.
“I could find a new kitchen manager and all the help, but it wouldn't be the same,” he said. “It wouldn't meet my expectations. So, we just made the decision. We've been trying to sell the bar for five or six years, with no real interest. I have to say since we closed on Monday, interest has been coming from everywhere. If there are any legitimate buyers out there, I'm certainly willing to listen to people.”
Trust is important in relationships, and the Burgarts trusted their staff. So much in fact that they were able to pursue a favorite pastime.
"Because the staff we've had, Susie and I have been able to travel as much as we wanted to," Burgart said. "We've done a lot of traveling the last six to seven years. We've had enough confidence in our staff that we were able to go. I could do payroll remotely and bookkeeping remotely. We would go for a month at a time, California, Hawaii a couple of times. We were able to go pretty much when we wanted to. You don't find that level of commitment in your staff very often."
While he readily admits he'll miss a lot of the people, he won't miss the people who tried to come in the door without a mask.
“There have been a lot,” Burgart said. “There have been a lot of people who got really mad at me. I was entrenched in that. If you don't have a mask, you won't come through the door.
"I'll miss the fellowship," he added. "We have some loyal, loyal patrons that love to come there. I never thought I'd be the local watering hole/post. It's been great.”
FAREWELL TO FAVORITES
In the bar, the most popular drink was Captain Morgan Rum. They sold more of that than anything else.
“What amazes me, as much as we have traveled, brandy is a Midwest drink,” Burgart said. “We sold a lot of E&J Brandy. When we visited California, they don't have brandy. That's been my experience in many places. At the Costco liquor store in California, you might not find brandy.”
For beer drinkers the preference was for Michelob Golden Draft and Coors Light. They were the Bonfire's biggest sellers.
On the restaurant side, the most popular item on the menu pre-COVID was the salad bar. Also in demand was prime rib on Friday night and their burgers.
"People always liked our burgers," Burgart shared. "Last week on Saturday I think it was, I had four young men sit at the bar and each had a steak sandwich. The one who was the king pin said it was the 'best steak sandwich in the world.'"
For a small place, the Bonfire had a fairly large menu. Big sellers were the walleye sandwich, steak sandwich and all the burgers. Burgart admitted to being astounded by the number of people who ordered chicken fingers.
"Everybody's tastes are different," he said.
From the beginning they bought their buns and hamburger from Lang's Meat Market and then Benny's in Hutchinson. It's one of the reasons Burgart credited for their consistency.
"We tried to do things local as much as possible," he said. "It's been good. Our burgers have been fresh from day one. That's been part of the success."
Their next plans call for selling their house on Lake Minniebelle. The couple lives in a multigenerational environment with their daughter, Heather Vaillancourt, son-in-law, Marc, and grandchildren.
“Marc now works for the Children's HeartLink, a worldwide organization that provides heart care services,” Burgart said. “Their office is at (Edina), and Heather works here. Anywhere in between would be an equal commute. We would like to continue the arrangement. People might think of it as strange, but we found it a very workable situation for us. We've done it since April 2014. It's almost been 7 years. You have to take a poll with the rest of the people, but I think they feel the same. It's been very, very good. Marc and Heather both work and their youngest daughter is a freshman in high school. We can provide some of the transportation needs to make it easier for mom and dad. We love spending time with our children and grandchildren.”
With no bar and restaurant to operate, Burgart is looking forward to doing jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles and reading. His favorites: mysteries, action and historical fiction-type stuff. Last year, he read the whole "Outlander" series of about 10,000 pages.
"I learned a lot about the hospitality business," he said. "At my advanced age — 74 this past November — it's the perfect age for retirement."
Proposed upgrades at Litchfield High School and Middle School took sharper focus during the Jan. 25 School Board meeting.
Litchfield School Board members took a virtual walk through of a remodeled middle school and high school complex during their meeting.
Representatives from ICS and Wold Architects gave the board a tour via video of concept drawings that highlighted various areas of the renovation project, which is estimated to cost $13.2 million and will be undertaken during the next two years.
“That was fabulous,” board member Julie Pennertz said after watching the video tours.
“It looks absolutely beautiful, guys,” board Chairman Darrin Anderson agreed. “Awesome job. It is a big process, and you guys are more valuable than I could ever say.”
John Kretchmer, an associate at Wold Architects and Engineers, said the designs are the result of a collaborative effort with teachers and administrators at the schools.
“(It is) reflective of a lot of input,” Kretchmer said, adding that principals have been accommodating and “generous with their time. (We) want to make sure they are commended as well.”
Work is slated to begin in June and be completed by September 2022, according to the construction calendar shared by Wold Architects and ICS.
But first, the board had to approve the letting of bids, which it did during the meeting. Bids will be received through much of February, with bid opening planned for the end of the month.
The middle school and high school renovations are the largest part of the building improvements approved by voters in a 2019 bond referendum. Improvements to the grounds and renovation of the building at Lake Ripley Elementary School also were part of the referendum approval. The work at Lake Ripley has already begun, with an upgrade to the parking lot and playground construction completed.
Perhaps the most eye-catching element of the high school-middle school renovation is the design of what will be a multi-purpose space near the main entrance to the high school. The current little theater and cafeteria spaces will be transformed into one large commons area that will serve as a lunchroom, as well as an area for public events or performances. The combined, wide-open space will actually allow for more seating that is currently offered in the theater and cafeteria, Kretchmer said.
He said designers were “trying to be intentional about giving people good sight lines” as well as designing for good acoustics in the space. The “intentional” design also carries to the media center, which will be transformed as part of the renovation.
“This has been such a wonderful experience to work with these guys,” board member Greg Mathews said. “They’ve given us options as to what we can do. When this began, the summer of 2022 seemed so distant. And we’re almost into the summer of 2021. It’s run so smoothly. (The board) has chosen very wisely to bring in this group. They’ve been outstanding.”
The Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City School Board made a few changes to its Return-to-School plan during a meeting Monday.
The amended plan has all students in preschool and grades K-9 back in the buildings in-person by Jan. 28, with the older students, grades 10-12, back to in-person school on Feb. 9. (The older students are currently attending in a hybrid model of two days per week in-person, two days distance learning.)
School administrators (after hearing from their own advisory council) originally recommended holding off on having seventh- through ninth-graders full-time in-person until Feb. 8, but input from the state department of education’s regional council persuaded school officials to allow junior high students to return earlier. (Elementary students are already back in classrooms full-time.)
According to charts Superintendent Nels Onstad showed the board, the primary reason ACGC students can return to school buildings is a drastic reduction in the number of people in Meeker and Kandiyohi counties who are experiencing active cases of COVID-19. The number of active cases among residents of the ACGC ZIP codes has also dropped dramatically from the peak in November and early December.
Prior to the board ordering students home for distance learning, more than 100 ACGC students and 10 staff members were quarantined due to exposure to the virus. It had become challenging and hazardous to continue to conduct in-person school under such circumstances, Onstad indicated.
Since then, school officials have communicated regularly with the District Advisory Council, consisting of representatives from ACGC parents, teachers, support staff, local businesses and the administrative team. Onstad said that almost everyone desires students back in classrooms, but it has been challenging to make the accommodations necessary to do so. The rapidly changing science of how to deal with the virus, Onstad said, has forced the DAC and staff to experience much fluctuation in how to best slow the disease’s spread.
“Any announcement from the state creates an upset apple cart,” he said. “We joke about the changes, but it’s growing weary.”
Although the highly contagious virus had slowed its spread in the ACGC community by mid-January, it has not disappeared. Failure to comply with health protocols could allow the virus to roar back.
“How we do this remains complicated,” Onstad said. “It is nobody’s fault: It is the pandemic’s fault.”
He told the board about mental health services available to school staff who struggle with the situation. He closed by stating that, whether a person believes in wearing a mask or not, “wearing masks is needed to get us back together.”
The staggered re-opening of the schools means that the daily schedule will need to be adjusted until the transition is complete. Currently, teachers need time to connect with their distance learners. A modified schedule is going into effect this week, with both buildings back to their pre-COVID schedules by Feb. 9.
“The kids really want to be back,” concluded board member Sarah Blom.
The board heard more details about how the district is coping with the situation in reports from PreK-4 Principal Kodi Goracke and Middle/High School Principal Robin Wall. Activities Director Marj Mauer briefed the board on how the district is handling community education, school sports and other activities.
Students have been practicing and engaging in competition in some sports, but spectators had not, as of the Jan. 25 board meeting, been allowed to be present. Mauer described how some spectators might be allowed to watch in-person in the near future. (Many games and meets are being live-streamed, however.)
There have also been changes in how transportation and the school lunch program are being conducted.
Distance learning attendance the past two months had been good, principals reported, but some students have been falling behind in their work. Wall is arranging for a structured credit recovery program in her building on Wednesday afternoons, to help students catch up to their potential. In addition, a few students, 28 in the high school and several in the elementary grades, are choosing to continue in distance learning for a while longer.
Onstad said that a few teachers have driven out of town and obtained a COVID-19 vaccine; he anticipates that more vaccine will be available soon. Testing is being offered to district staff every two weeks.