Popular Montevideo restaurant to close after 54 years
MONTEVIDEO — To know Montevideo, enjoy a beef commercial or burger and fries platter at the Trailways Cafe and top it all off with a slice of fresh-baked lemon meringue pie.
The Trailways News Network of local patrons will apprise you of all that’s happening. The home-cooked food and friendly service will remind you of what makes rural living so pleasant.
But get to the Trailways Cafe before the end of the day May 29.
It will be the last day of business before the building is razed.
“It will be a tough day,’’ said Jim Curtiss, its owner along with his spouse, Cheryl. “End of an era.’’
The well-known restaurant and gas station at the intersection of Highways 7/59 and 212 in Montevideo is a victim of the times, Curtiss said.
Mom and pop restaurants cannot compete with the fast-food chains, he explained.
“The young people, they’re always in a hurry in their lives. It’s fast food,’’ he said.
And while this remains a very busy intersection of three highways, with an average daily traffic count of 5,600 vehicles, the number of truckers stopping for a meal has declined too. Many of the truckers that frequented the cafe were hauling grain from South Dakota. Improved rail shipping throughout eastern South Dakota and western Minnesota has greatly reduced that traffic, Curtiss said.
The restaurant used to be open 24-hours-a-day. It was the after-hours meeting place for patrons of the
M & M Ballroom and local watering holes. The
M & M has long ago closed its doors. People don’t have as much discretionary income as they once did either, Curtiss said.
And, tougher DWI laws and enforcement has resulted in fewer people out and about in the early morning hours, he noted. Trailways ended its 24-hour schedule in 1995.
Another big change has been the decline in the numbers of hunters who once flocked to the area in the autumn, Curtiss said.
“We were really busy,’’ he said, adding that the
restaurant had seen many very good years.
It first opened its doors 54 years ago in September 1962. Its owners were Jack and Dorothy Bittner, and they had a similar operation in Morris.
Jim Curtiss pumped gas for a couple of summers at the Trailways station (1966-67) while in high school. In 1987 he bought the gas station and managed and later leased the cafe. In 1991 he had the opportunity to purchase the cafe. He later expanded it to offer seating for 120.
That’s still not enough on Sundays, when extra chairs have to be pulled out to accommodate the after-church crowd.
If it were that busy every day, the cafe would remain open, said Curtiss. But business has slowed. The building is now at the point where it needs significant upgrades, such as a new roof.
The numbers tell the story, but it has been a very difficult decision all the same. The hardest part was breaking the news to employees, said Curtiss.
“They stuck with me through thick and thin,’’ Curtiss said.
The staff numbered over 40 during the restaurant’s heyday.
There are currently four full-time employees, all with strong ties to the business. Linda Bendickson has been with the cafe since 1976. She laughs that she knows what many customers will order before they take their seats. Mary Vanbinsbergen has been baking the pies and bars for longer than she cares to admit. Christy Stock started here as a 15-year-old more than two decades ago. Justin Curtiss, son of the owners, has been the cook for nearly three years.
“I really love everybody here,’’ said patron Diane White while lamenting the impending closure. “It’s so homey.’’
Patrons are signing a guest book and adding their comments while the Trailways offers its popular Potato Klub out of season as a special, goodbye offering.
Curtiss, 67, served as mayor of Montevideo for 14 years until he decided not to run for re-election. He plans to run for mayor again. He and Cheryl also intend to do some traveling. Cheryl is a pharmacist in town and has helped out at the restaurant as she can.
It takes long hours, noted Curtiss. He typically opens the doors about 4:30 a.m. and is usually the guy locking them at 11 p.m.
In between those hours he takes good-natured ribbing from longtime patrons, and the special guests who stop. Minnesota Twins Tony Oliva and Kent Hrbek are among those who occasionally stopped here. Curtiss remembers as a high school student being lucky enough to fill Oliva’s Thunderbird and drive it off the gas island while he was in the cafe.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson remains a regular visitor, and Curtiss has had his photo taken with a string of four different governors.
The Montevideo Cenex has purchased the largest portion of the property. Curtiss believes it will be building a gas station and convenience store at the site. Cenex will continue to operate the existing gas station until June 13, after which its underground tanks will be removed.
The contents of Trailways will be sold through an online auction service in June. Soon after, local contractor Denny Larson and his crew will tear down the structure.
Larson has purchased a slice of the property. He told Curtiss he plans to erect the largest “Elect Jim Curtiss for Mayor’’ sign that he can on it.