COOK - If you're looking for Megan Brodeen anytime in the foreseeable future, she shouldn't be hard to find.
"Every day. 7 to 8," the new owner of Cook's Montana Cafe said as she sat at one of its booths one day last week. "It's more like, probably, 6 to 9."
That's 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., in case you were wondering, and "every day" means seven days a week, although the Sunday shift likely will be shorter. It's what Brodeen, 22, expected when she signed the papers for ownership of her hometown restaurant on the same month in which she graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Minnesota Duluth.
"This is what I signed up for. I'm ready for it," said Brodeen, who technically grew up and lives 5 miles south, in Angora.
To hear it said on South River Street, the main drag, the people of Cook are ready for it, too.
"I think everybody will be glad to have it back," said Kathy Cheney down the street at Frank's Pharmacy, where she has worked for 19 years. "Because now I've been sending them to Orr or the South Switch (in Angora) because there's no sit-down restaurant in town."
"I think it's a real important business for Cook and especially for the downtown area," agreed Rich Crettol, the CEO of North Star Credit Union on the other side of the street. "It's going to be really nice to have that back open again."
In a 105-year-old building and serving as a cafe since 1970, the Montana had been only the sit-down, full-service restaurant in this Iron Range town of 574 when it closed on Nov. 17. With booths lining the walls, tables in the middle and a small counter lined with iconic red, saddle-shaped seats, it was a gathering for locals who work downtown and summer visitors alike.
"People come here just because of the history of the restaurant ... and the classic old-style look inside," said Steve Crockett, who owns two gift stores close by. "You just don't see many places like that anymore."
Valerie Ohotto and her husband, Jerry, purchased the cafe in 1996, before Brodeen was born. Reached by telephone at her home last week, Ohotto sounded like someone who has a touch of seller's remorse.
"I would have never sold my cafe if I wouldn't have been sick," said Ohotto, 58. "Never. I loved it. I loved it."
What she thought was only a cold last September developed to the point that she couldn't breathe and had to be taken by ambulance to Duluth, Ohotto related. She was diagnosed on Sept. 7 with extensive lung cancer. Although the cancer was determined to be incurable, it was found to be inactive on Dec. 5 and she feels well now, Ohotto said.
Although the Montana wasn't officially on the market, she received several offers in the fall, Ohotto said.
In March, Brodeen called Ohotto and made an offer, and it was accepted. Brodeen, who declined to reveal how much she paid for the restaurant, secured a loan from the Entrepreneur Fund, which aids businesses in Northeastern Minnesota and Northwestern Wisconsin, to cover the cost. She signed the papers on May 31 and went to work cleaning, painting walls, ordering supplies and hiring her work force (four full time, one part time).
She credits two faculty members at UMD's Labovitz School of Business and Economics - Lai La Lunde and Raymond Jones III - with advising her in planning her business model.
Reached by phone, Lunde said Brodeen has the advantage of restaurant experience - she has worked in food service at Melgeorge's Elephant Lake Lodge and at Fortune Bay Casino.
"As far as running the business from the front office, it's going to be a challenge," Lunde said.
Brodeen still faced a gap for startup costs - specifically a dishwasher - so she took to the internet site Kickstarter, opening her fundraising campaign on June 1.
There was no Kickstarter when the Ohottos bought the Montana, and the fundraising mechanism doesn't sit well with Valerie Ohotto.
"When you come from a small town, people don't like beggars," Ohotto said.
Nonetheless, Brodeen reached $3,600 of her $5,000 target in the first three days of her 30-day effort.
"Cook is such a close community that I just knew that they would go for it," Brodeen said.
Given that many college students from small towns never come back except for visits, Brodeen's decision to not only return but to run an iconic business might seem like an anachronism. But her family has deep roots in the area, she said, and she had no desire to settle anywhere else.
"I always pictured myself living here," Brodeen said. "I just really value my family."
This past weekend, Brodeen was set to serve hamburgers and some sandwiches outside during Cook's annual Timber Days celebration. Her official opening day is today.
Outside of some fresh paint and a different set of historical photos of Cook businesses on the walls, customers can expect to see few changes from the last time they were in the Montana. The menu will be essentially the same, Brodeen said.
And most certainly, the name will be the same.
Which brings up the question: Why is there something called the Montana Cafe in Cook, Minn.?
"The first owners said they were going to move out to Montana, and then they decided not to," Brodeen said, relating local lore. "And they called it the Montana."
Open for business
Hours at the Montana Cafe, 29 S. River St., Cook, are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.