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Cindy Swenson, left, and Suzanne Ziebarth own and operate the Middle Fork Café in downtown New London. Cousins from Willmar, the two women recently purchased an existing diner and revamped the interior design and menu before opening last month. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

New London restaurant takes new turn with new owners and a new menu

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NEW LONDON — Two cousins from Willmar have taken a new fork in the road of their lives and at the same time have given new direction to an old restaurant on New London’s Main Street.

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The result has been exhausting for the two women and exhilarating for a community of foodies eager for “made-from-scratch” food with a dash of sophisticated flavors and served with a glass of local wine, an imported craft beer or gourmet coffee.

Located on the edge of the Middle Fork of the Crow River that snakes through New London, Cindy Swenson and Suzanne Ziebarth are etching out the makings of a destination café in a spot that had been a small-town diner for many years.

Formerly known as Jan’s Riverside Café, Swenson and Ziebarth purchased and remodeled the 40-seat restaurant this spring.

It opened under its new name, The Middle Fork Café, less than a month ago.

The name pays homage to the nearby river, and the large metal dinner fork sculpture that hangs outside the café’s entrance leaves no doubt about the purpose of the business.

The café has garnered positive reviews and has been significantly busier than the women expected.

“It’s been fast and furious,” said Ziebarth.

“Fun and exhausting,” said Swenson.

Although she was the original owner and developer of the popular LuLu Bean's Coffee Shop in Willmar, Swenson had been out of the food business for a few years before deciding she was ready to start a new business.

Her cousin Suzanne — who moved back to Willmar a few years ago after living abroad as a missionary for 16 years — agreed to be her partner.

They chose New London for their new business venture.

With its collection of clothing boutiques, art studios and specialty gift and craft stores, Swenson said New London seemed like a good fit for a café with a menu that includes everything from a “grownup” grilled cheese sandwich with avocados, bacon and three different types of cheese to desserts like almond pavlova with dulce de leche and strawberries.

But the café is attracting more than shoppers looking for a sandwich, salad or one of the many decadent chocolate desserts and pastries that are handmade in the café’s kitchen and shown off in the display case to tempt customers. The breakfast crowd of regulars from the old diner shows up every morning for a kick-start to the day with a breakfast menu that includes the typical bacon and eggs as well as cinnamon swirl pancakes, scones and cowboy quiche.

Lunchtime sandwiches, like the Italian chicken with “basil pesto mayo” and the popular “reubenator,” are balanced with a daily “hot pick” special like tater tot hotdish and meatloaf that appeals to hearty eaters and work crews looking for homemade comfort food, said Swenson.

The café’s menu does not include fried food. There are no hamburgers.

But a hot beef commercial with real mashed potatoes and gravy is likely to show up as an occasional noon special.

Creating a menu was just part of the project.

With a team of family, friends and contractors the interior of the old diner was torn apart and given a new, fresh look — mostly by using old, recycled or repurposed items.

The wood floor is made from a stack of abandoned raw cut planks found in the woods that were sanded and refinished.

The table tops and framework for the doors are made from reclaimed barn wood that’s been refinished.

The large beams holding up the outdoor pergola over the patio are rough-hewn timbers that came from well-used old barn. Old wooden doors serve as a wall for the deck stairs.

Most of the interior décor is original work by local artists.

Banquette booth seating with colorful fabric on one wall gives an urban splash to the design of the café.

Swenson and Ziebarth said the remodeling project came from a combination of well-thought plans, last-minute inspirations and Pinterest — a popular online site that features a variety of do-it-yourself projects.

Building the business has included the same set of tools, with a few minor hiccups in the opening days that were mostly the result of having more customers than they expected.

“We’ve worked long hours,” said Ziebarth, who had never worked in the restaurant business before.

“We’re finding our rhythm,” said Swenson.

Nearly each week something new is added to the café.

“It’ll be evolving,” said Swenson.

More items, like flatbread pizza and appetizers, will be added to the menu soon.

The café is currently open from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday and is open occasionally for dinner. The selected night and the featured menu item are announced on the café’s Facebook page.

They hope to eventually be open for dinners three nights a week.

They said the city of New London was extremely helpful in getting the business launched, including approving a license for the sale of beer and wine.

Gap financing from the Southwest Minnesota Initiative Fund helped complete the financial package.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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