The Full Story
With a story as genuine as its food, the history of Charlie’s Café is like a delicious serving of homemade meringue pie. Sit back, relax and let Charlie himself introduce you to the beginning of Charlie’s Café!
“Charlie Heidgerken bought the café from his brother Dennis on June 1, 1962. It was called the Freeport Café. Charlie’s wife Shirley worked there since November 1958. The hours the café was open were 6 AM to 2 or 3 AM.
Shirley remembers well when a cup of coffee was raised from 5¢ a cup to 10¢ a cup. There was a lot of grumbling from the customers about that. An average day would take in about $70.00. Weekends were triple or more.
The bank payment per month was $89.83. A few months after Charlie bought the restaurant, Dick Laing came and offered Charlie half price of what Charlie paid for it or he would build a new one on main street. Our restaurant was located in what is now the Commercial Exchange on the side street. Charlie couldn’t swing it, so Dick built his restaurant on main street. At that time, no one called him Charlie, it was always Chuck, Chuck had to give his restaurant a new name. So, Charlie and Shirley decided that Charlie’s would be a better name then Chuck. That’s when Charlie’s Café began in 1963. Business went on for a few years and the locals and surrounding towns were loyal to Charlie’s. In those days, not many meals were eaten in the restaurant during the day; most were eaten after 11 PM.
Leo Kowski borrowed Dick the money and after 2 years, Dick’s Café was in financial trouble. Leo Kowski came to Charlie and said, “Let’s make this a one café town again.” We were unable to come up with the money until we found a bachelor who borrowed us the money to buy Dick’s Café. We closed the side street Café and moved to the café on main street in 1965 and that’s when Charlie’s Café began on the location it is now.
When we moved from the side street to main street, we had to pay for two restaurants. In those days, people didn’t go out to eat like they do today – So, we decided we better start promoting. We started a chicken and dressing dinner and also a rib dinner in around 1967 for 95¢ on Sunday’s. It was a big hit. In 1967, we decided to start buck night on Tuesday nights. That was also a big hit. People couldn’t get in for seating so we would have about 200 take out orders. In 1970, we started a fish special (all you can eat) on Friday nights. That was also a big hit. These specials are still here today. A lot of restaurants copied our special’s.
Charlie sold the café to John Botz around 1974. He did a great job remodeling – larger kitchen and about 30 more seating. John Botz was in the café a few years and decided to move to Arizona. Charlie missed the restaurant and bought it back. Through the years, business always increased about 10% a year except during the energy crisis when Jimmy Carter was President. Business dropped by about 30% because of no driving on Sunday’s, etc. Competition started coming in, Hi-Ho Café in Sauk Centre, Sands in Albany, a new café next to freeway in Melrose, DQ’s in Melrose and Albany, Burger King, convenience stores selling food. Later the bars all started selling food, but it never affected Charlie’s Café. Business always kept growing. Then Charlie sold the café to his brother, Bud. He kept the name – Charlie’s Café.”
In The Center Of It All
Charlie's became one of the two most famous halfway points in the state, the other being Toby’s (Minneapolis Tribune, front page). At any given time, one will find one-half the customers from the West: Fargo, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alexandria, Fergus Falls and Glenwood. The cafe was the centerfold of a recent National Geographic magazine and book entitled, In Search of Lake Wobegon. Garrison Keillor of “Prairie Home Companion” lived South of Freeport when he first started writing and worked at St. John’s radio station. He would be a daily customer and still stops in when he is in the area. It’s popularity is all attributed to great home cooked meals and friendly small town atmosphere. It’s constantly been on café ratings in all food types for years in MN. Whether it is the famous caramel roll, meringue pies (old fashion) or homemade chili and soups. It has been the spot on I-94 and before. Most of the customer base is repeat customers. Whether they are from Minneapolis, St. Paul or Fargo – this is their kitchen away from home.
Continuing A Legacy
In the late 80’s brother Bud and Ann came into the business and continued the long tradition. It’s business advertised on TV stations in Walker, Montevideo and radio stations out West and St. Cloud. It has become a frequent stopping point for buses and truck drivers as well. During the summer season, Bud and Ann employed as many as forty people to help staff its growing popularity.
Today Bud and Ann are helping a new owner into the business, Jesse and Julie Job. This past Spring Jesse returned to the Café to begin the process of giving good service and food to the travelers up and down the freeway and to local contingents. Having previously worked at Charlie’s for six years, Jesse and Julie will continue building onto the legend of Charlie’s Café.
(Story written in 2007)