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Kathy's Place practices the meat and potatoes of business

Kathy Riley owns and operates Kathy's Place in Sacred Heart. A hearty Midwestern menu is featured. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)

SACRED HEART -- Cooking up the most exotic dishes in the world is small potatoes when compared to what Kathy Riley takes on every day.

She makes certain that every meal served at Kathy's Place in Sacred Heart is tasty and appealing enough to woo some of rural Minnesota's best home cooks away from their own dining room tables.

"This is a meat and potatoes town,'' Riley said.

It means that her customers not only have some pretty well-known preferences when it comes to menu choices, but they have some very definite expectations of what the dishes should taste like.

Kathy's Place has been meeting those expectations ever since she opened the doors on April 28, 2003, and her fears that no one would show up were quickly laid to rest. There was a line of people that went right around the block.

They keep coming back, for hearty Midwestern breakfasts that are served all hours, luncheon specials and evening dinners featuring everything from slow-cooked roast beef to chef salads.

"People get whatever they want here,'' said Riley. "They order it. I fix it up.''

That simple, straightforward approach to the business of running a small town café and restaurant is what Riley brought to Sacred Heart from day one. She had grown up and lived in the Twin Cities, and worked for a couple of decades as a waitress at chain restaurants including Woolworth's and Perkin's. Her experience with the chains had convinced her that their regimented way about serving foods was not always to their customers' liking.

Far better to keep your ears open, and adjust the menu or any order based on what a customer wants, Riley explained. "Give people what they want and they will come back,'' she said.

It makes for good business sense, but the truth should be known. Kathy Riley had no plans to be in business when she first laid eyes on Sacred Heart, population 549.

She and fiancé Terry Hagge did a lot of home renovation work. Their next door neighbor happened to be a Sacred Heart native who told them about a very affordable house in his hometown needing work. They could escape the pressures of metropolitan living on weekends by fixing up a house in a quiet, rural community.

The "for sale'' sign on the vacant restaurant building along U.S. Highway 212 in Sacred Heart caught Riley's eye. "I just thought I'd see if it was doable. So here I am,'' she said, laughing.

Instead of fixing up that house, the two set to work remodeling the restaurant building. It had been vacant for 11 months, and had served previous roles going back to its years as a gas station. Today, the spacious, cheerful and home-like interior is applauded as "cute'' and welcoming.

Perhaps no business matters more to the soul of a small town than a café, as it serves as the social gathering place for people of all ages. This one is no different.

Kathy's Place serves a varied clientele, from senior citizens who ask for half-portions of some meals to teenagers with appetites voracious enough to gobble down giant, double-stacked Angus beef cheeseburgers and fries.

It's also the right place to treat a family: There are malts, shakes, sundaes and root beer floats for the sweet tooth and everything from Philly melts to meatloaf and mashed potato meals to liver and onions. Honest.

"There are people who come here just for that,'' said Riley of the liver and onions.

She said her business is fortunate in that it enjoys good patronage from the local community, serves also as the senior nutrition site, and appeals to diners who come from nearby communities including Granite Falls, Echo, Renville and Clara City. Its location along U.S. Highway 212 attracts travelers too.

Riley said she's no longer surprised when a motorist stops in to take a break from the road and she recognizes them from having served them as a waitress in the Twin Cities.

Operating a small-town restaurant requires long work hours. Riley puts them in, and is faithful about keeping consistent hours of operation. Kathy's Place is open from 5:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays. It's open every day of the year except for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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