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Elsie's Café in Clarkfield defies state orders, opens for business Friday

Elsie's Café in Clarkfield in Yellow Medicine County in western Minnesota opened for business on Friday. The new owner said the financial burden of only being able to serve take out has been taxing.

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Elsie's Café opened for dine-in despite Gov. Tim Walz's executive order barring establishment from doing so. Mark Wasson / West Central Tribune

CLARKFIELD – Elsie's Café was busy Friday, with dozens of people coming into the Clarkfield establishment to support owner Natasha Lynne, who opened up her business in defiance of Gov. Tim Walz's executive order barring restaurants from indoor dining.

Lynne bought the café from the city two days before Walz's Nov. 21 order, which put her and her three children in a precarious financial spot.

“I’m glad that I opened today,” Lynne said. “I have my normal people, of course, that came in for breakfast this morning and they’re back here again for lunch.”

A box of masks and hand sanitizer greet you as you walk into the café, which sits next to the Ink Spot , a commercial printing business, in a strip mall in downtown Clarkfield.

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Elsie's Café opened for dine-in despite Gov. Tim Walz's executive order barring establishment from doing so. Mark Wasson / West Central Tribune

The light brown walls are decorated with uniforms from Clarkfield Cardinals high school teams, championship trophies and high school graduation pictures.

A picture of her grandmother, the namesake of the café, hangs on a wall next to the kitchen along with an aerial picture of the town and an article about her opening.

A counter bar, full of utensils and condiments in anticipation of today's business, stands in front of a pop machine and coffee pots.

The chairs in front of the counter are empty, with customers sitting at spaced-out tables in the café.

“I’m glad it wasn’t busier than it was because I don’t know that I’d be able to keep up,” Lynne said.

Lynne said she usually works out front but today she was working the kitchen, preparing order after order ready.

“Today being (in the kitchen), it’s, ooh, yeah, I was sweating,” Lynne said.

Some customers left a $20 tip, along with a note thanking her for opening up.

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Some patrons left a $20 tip and a note for Elsie's Cafe owner Natasha Lynne. The cafe opened for dine-in despite Gov. Tim Walz's executive order barring establishment from doing so. Mark Wasson / West Central Tribune

A representative from Countryside Public Health Services came to the café around 11:30 a.m. to tell Lynne that she was in violation of the governor's orders by allowing dine-in service. Countryside is a five-county community health service agency serving the counties of Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine in western Minnesota.

The representative declined to give her name to the West Central Tribune, citing safety concerns.

Lynne said the woman was there to warn her about her violation and to educate her about the executive order.

“I said that ‘I already know that order. I get emails from you guys every day,’” Lynne said.

The woman told Lynne she wasn’t there to take her license away but that complaints had already been made against her for being open.

“She said I was in the crossfire with the (Minnesota Attorney General’s) office and I said ‘Yep, obviously,’” Lynne said.

Lynne said she expected to get complaints “because that’s what people in Clarkfield like to do.”

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She signed forms the woman from Countryside Public Health gave to her; the papers specifically outlined that she signed and that she received the paperwork, not that she agreed that she was in the wrong for opening the restaurant Friday.

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A representative from Countryside Public Health, right, came in around 11:30 a.m. to tell Elsie's Cafe owner Natasha Lynne, left, she was in violation of the governor's orders by allowing dine-in service. Mark Wasson / West Central Tribune

The Minnesota Attorney General's office has brought multiple lawsuits against businesses in Minnesota that have opened in violation of Walz's executive order which was recently updated Wednesday to allow outdoor dining at 50% capacity or up to 100 people starting Saturday.

In a statement released Wednesday, Walz cited concerns about hospital capacity and the fact that Minnesota is very quickly approaching 4,500 deaths related to COVID-19.

Violators can face possible jail time and significant fines. Some establishments that serve alcohol have had their licenses revoked by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

Gregory Payne, 73, of rural Clarkfield, came in for lunch Friday with his wife, Dana Larson, 71. They said the governor's orders don't make sense and wish St. Paul would stay out of their business.

"We have worked so hard in this community to have this café," Payne said, citing the town's support of Lynne in her quest to feed the town of about 850.

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Gregory Payne, 73, of rural Clarkfield, came in for lunch to Elsie's Café in Clarkfield Friday with his wife, Dana Larson, 71. The cafe opened for dine-in despite Gov. Tim Walz's executive order barring establishment from doing so. Mark Wasson / West Central Tribune

Payne said Clarkfield was bustling this fall and starting to return to a sense of normalcy.

"Then to have it all shut down again it makes me so angry," Payne said.

His wife, Larson, said the café serves as a gathering point for the community to talk about recent events or to catch up with one another.

"This is Natasha's livelihood and the people in this community support her and her family," Larson said.

The financial burden of only being able to serve take out has been taxing on Lynne. She said on Wednesday she only brought in $60.

She said Wednesday is when she decided she was opening.

“I have kids, how am I supposed to pay my bills?” Lynne said. “Is the governor going to pay that for me? Is he going to start paying everybody's bills? Is he going to start paying people’s second mortgages when they’re losing their house?”

On Friday, her first day opening back up, Lynne said she made $1,444.84 or about three times what she normally makes on a good day.

In a statement released Wednesday, Attorney General Keith Ellison said he was asking businesses affected by the executive orders to comply voluntarily.

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Elsie's Café opened for dine-in despite Gov. Tim Walz's executive order barring establishment from doing so. Mark Wasson / West Central Tribune

“I’m also asking businesses that are considering reopening in defiance of executive orders not to do it. You’re putting people at risk. People will get sick and die because of you. Not only from COVID-19: if someone has a heart attack or a stroke or a car accident and dies because they can’t get an ICU bed that’s being used by someone who got COVID at your establishment, or got it from someone who got it at your establishment, that death is also on you," Ellison said in the statement.

Yellow Medicine County, where Lynne’s restaurant is located, as of Friday, has 14 deaths related to COVID-19 and 767 total cases, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Cathy Nemitz, 54, and her fiancé, Keith Hanson, 58, both live in Clarkfield and said they came in for lunch Friday to help support Lynne.

"We don't support the governor's rules, it's a bunch of B.S.," Hanson said between bites of his meal. "We have to support families and people running businesses."

Nemitz cited frustration with rules dictating who can have customers inside their place of business and who can't.

Big-box stores like Target are allowed customers inside while places like Elsie's Café have to rely on outdoor dining in December and take-out orders.

"Small businesses are being picked on by the governor," Nemitz said. "It's so packed (in big-box stores) and people are doing whatever they want."

Lynne said she plans on continuing to allow dine-in Monday through Friday, her regular schedule, but isn’t sure what the future holds but she said thankful for the community for showing her support.

When asked what she would like to say to the people that came out to her café today, Lynne began to cry.

“Thank you,” she said, as tears rolled down her cheeks. “I don’t even have words. I don’t even know what to say. That’s all I can say is thank you, there’s no words besides that I live in a great community,” Lynne said.

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Elsie's Café opened for dine-in despite Gov. Tim Walz's executive order barring establishment from doing so. Mark Wasson / West Central Tribune

Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at mwasson@postbulletin.com.
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