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Oil changes are out but meals are in at Food Garage in Lake Lillian, Minn.

Rachelle, left, and Dennis Jacobson serve a table of women in the dining room of The Food Garage. The Jacobsons remodeled the former Ford garage in Lake Lillian into a restaurant. The business opened its doors nearly a year ago and draws customers from a 30-mile radius. (Tribune photo by David Little)

LAKE LILLIAN -- You can get the Mexican or meat-lovers omelet, barbecued pork ribs, or burgers and fries but not an oil change at The Food Garage, a new restaurant located in the former Ford garage in downtown Lake Lillian.

"I know we get a lot of people that love it and they'll make comments: 'Where do I get an oil change? Can I get a new car here?' Kind of joking around,'' says Dennis Jacobson who with his wife, Rachelle, own the restaurant with the name in an oval that closely resembles the well-known Ford script logo.

"It brought a little more attention to us rather than being just a regular mom-and-pop shop,'' he says.

They've probably lost a few customers, though, who didn't read the sign correctly. That was the case with workers on the wind turbine project southeast of town. The workers had stopped to eat and later learned they'd been driving past a restaurant and not a car dealership.

Jacobson researched the building's history. William R. Johnson constructed the building in 1923. It burned down, was rebuilt, then burned again and was rebuilt in 1925.

The Ford garage open in 1923 and closed in 1986. The business originally sold Ford cars, trucks and Ford tractors. In the 1950s they added Minneapolis Moline, New Idea and New Holland. The business once had an auto body repair shop.

Johnson died in 1971. The building was remodeled in 1973 and was the site of a marketing company. Francis Whetston of Lake Lillian bought the building and used it for vehicle repair, along with storage for himself and other households and the city and the library.

The Jacobsons had worked at local and area cafes and had talked about the possibility having their own restaurant in Whetston's building, but Whetston was reluctant to sell because of all the stuff he stored.

However, he agreed to sell in December 2009 and the process of moving everything out took about four months. The couple received all their permits by February 2010 and began the renovation process.

They retained the original pressed metal ceiling with its diamond and floral motif, painting it gray.

"It was kind of in rough shape but we took a lot of care to try to bring it back to the original condition,'' said Jacobson.

They took the interior down to the empty shell. The well-constructed building was true and square. They jack hammered and removed about 5 cubic yards of concrete and tied into the original plumbing, which the previous owner had jetted out. The plumber, said Jacobson, was amazed at how clean the pipes were.

They installed new vinyl flooring in the eating area just off the kitchen and counter, and painted the floor in the dining room. Quarry tile for the kitchen floor was required by the Kandiyohi County Health Department.

Booths, chairs and tables came from closed restaurants: a Pizza Hut in Anoka, a Steak and Ale in Bloomington and Timberlodge Steak House in Fargo. The ice cream coolers and prep-coolers came from coffee shops in Stillwater and Minneapolis.

Jacobson said furnishings were available online at a time when many restaurants were closing.

"We picked up pieces and parts everywhere and at less than 10 cents on the dollar, not even a penny on the dollar for the chairs,'' said Jacobson. "They're $300 chairs that we paid $2 apiece for.''

Auto industry memorabilia, such as oil and tire company signs and car drawings, are displayed courtesy of area car buffs.

"That is a great gift,'' said Jacobson.

The restaurant opened on Oct. 31, 2010, and business has been good ever since, averaging about 100 people a day and about 100 to 150 on a good Friday night. In addition, they're available for private parties, wedding receptions and catering.

Customers are spreading the word. The couple initially hoped to serve a 15-mile radius but are drawing diners from as far as 30 miles away.

"It's a little surprising to us to see people coming from the distance they are on a regular basis to try our food,'' said Jacobson.

The traditional fare includes burgers, fries and chicken strips, but the restaurant is becoming known for its omelets varieties. They offered a popular fish fry during Lent, a Friday night all-you-can-eat shrimp and a boneless barbecue pork rib with meat from Wick's of Kandiyohi.

The restaurant opens at 7 a.m. seven days a week; closes at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday; and closes at 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

Jacobson loves small towns. He's the third generation to live in Lake Lillian since his grandpa moved here from Norway. The Jacobsons considered locating in Cosmos, but the price, just like in Hutchinson or Willmar, was out of reach.

"If we don't reinvest in a small town, we go to a larger city,'' he said. "There goes our small towns.''

David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150