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Cafe at Minnwest Tech campus provides common ground

Employees at the MinnWest Technology campus are pictured Feb. 11 at the MinnWest Commons cafeteria in Willmar. The a la carte cafe is open from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. A daily homemade hot special is offered for less than $4 and there's always soup, salad, sandwiches and homemade bars and cookies. (Tribune photo by Gary Miller)

WILLMAR -- Chef Grant Huisinga has 10 years of food preparation experience and is in his third year as a business owner.

Not bad for a guy who's only 25.

"I knew I wanted to be in the industry," said Huisinga of his early decision to attend culinary school in Minneapolis and spend his days satisfying people's taste buds.

Huisinga, a Willmar resident, owns and operates Heglund Catering and also provides weekday noon meals at MinnWest Commons, located on the MinnWest Technology campus.

Both parts of his business are based in the spacious kitchen and window-lined cafeteria on the grand, historic campus that had once fed hundreds of people three meals a day when it was the Willmar Regional Treatment Center.

The state closed the hospital and sold the grounds and most of the buildings four years ago to Nova Tech Engineering and Life Science Innovations.

The campus is being transformed into a high-tech center for innovative businesses that are within walking distance of each other and within walking distance of a physical fitness center, the cafe and -- starting this spring -- a day care center.

It's "really exciting" to be part of the transformation, said Huisinga, who did some revamping of the kitchen and with the help of his wife, Cari, and mentor Mike Heglund, has been running both sides of his ambitious enterprise.

Despite work weeks of up to 70 hours, it's obvious Huisinga is having fun and enjoying success. There a hint of grin ready to take full bloom when he talks about his work. The catering side is the primary part of the business, with jobs as small as an eight-person lunch and as big as 1,000.

Huisinga purchased the catering business from Heglund three years ago. The two had worked together at the former "All-A-Bord" restaurant, where Huisinga started working when he was 15.

Because it had been an established, successful business when he bought it, Huisinga decided to keep the "Heglund Catering" name. "Mike was generous enough to let me use it," he said.

Family ties with the owners of MinnWest helped him decide to locate the catering business on the campus. With that lease came the agreement that Huisinga would also provide food service, which developers view as another important piece of the business environment that's crucial for MinnWest's growth.

Offering those amenities in one location is designed to attract new businesses and employees and help colleagues network.

That plan worked, according to a group of customer service representatives from Nova Tech who eat at the cafe three to four times a week.

Dave Broze said the cafe is convenient and the food is good.

Considering the gas and time it takes to drive downtown to a restaurant or home to eat left-overs, Jay Halliday figures it's far cheaper to eat at MinnWest Commons.

The a la carte cafe is open from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. A daily homemade hot special is offered for less than $4 and there's always soup, salad, sandwiches and Cari's homemade bars and cookies. The monthly menus are posted on MinnWest's Web site:

"It keeps everything so central," said Aaron Madsen. He likes the fact that Huisinga asks his customers what they'd like to see on the menu. "It's really pretty neat."

There are 250 people working on the campus, said Huisinga, and up to 80 will eat at the cafeteria daily.

The cafe is "open to everyone," Huisinga said. "Word is kind of getting around."

MinnWest Commons is ideal for people who are looking for "a good cheap lunch" that's home made and served without the flare of a restaurant, he said.

For Huisinga, the thrill of the job is the "instant gratification" he experiences when he sees people enjoying food he's made. "I love the reaction of people," he said.

"That's where it's at for me."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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