Cooking up a dream
Many people dream of quitting their nine-to-five grind, and venturing out with their own business. From the smallest pop-up shops, to businesses of scale, the risk/reward factor can be great. There is no guarantee that any of it will work, and if it does work, how much time do you get for a successful business before it’s run its course, or needs to be re-invented to keep going? Then, how do you get a working formula that creates not just income, but a culture, and a brand? Some people think these questions are more suited for bigger, more well-known businesses, such as Nike, Aeropostale, or Old Navy. But creating a successful business, along with a sustaining work culture, and a brand that generates income, can happen even in small towns. For Kevin and Toni Hammer, owning and running Buffalo Ridge Cafe in Alta is the dream come true, that looks to have a formula for success. Go in any Sunday morning, and sometimes it’s standing room only, with church crowd folks, curious out-of-town people, and some bleary-eyed revelers from the night before. This can spill over into lunch, where even more good, old-fashioned hardy, and healthy cooking, rules the day. But the rule is having customers come back through the door, and it looks like Buffalo Ridge has hit on a successful business model. The staff consists of high school and college girls, the majority of them being kids that Kevin has taught over the years, being a coach, and teacher with the Alta-Aurelia school district. “They seem to stay with me, until they go to college, and some even work over their breaks, and in the summers. I like to think I’ve taught them a good work ethic, that will stay with them through life. Plus, I think it’s the perfect job for them – they work Saturday, and Sunday, off by 2:30 p.m., and they make some pretty good tips. I’ve been truly blessed with good help, and that’s not easy for any business to say, these days,” says Toni. And for Toni, who has a degree in lodging, and restaurant management, it’s a business vision that has come to fruition.
“I have always had a dream of owning my own cafe. The timing was right when this place came up for sale, so we jumped on it,” says Toni. Previously, before Kevin and Toni bought the business back in 2015, it was the Hoodlebug, and was a few more establishments in its history. Toni has been the one who has had restaurant work experience. “My family owned a restaurant for a few years when I was in high school, and I also managed a waffle house, when we lived in Colorado Springs,” says Toni. When it came time to own their own business, Toni credits Kevin. ”Kevin was all for it – he’s the one that gave me the push to do it. He thoroughly enjoys helping here. He’s the first one in every morning – he likes to open up, make the coffee, turn on the grill, and welcome our first regulars. He’s my official greeter, and jack of all trades on Sundays,” says Toni.
The culture of the Buffalo Ridge Cafe exemplifies the spirit of the plains history of Alta, and a descriptive text about this subject is printed right on their rustic menus, along with the story of how the Hammers named the cafe. These small touches are a good example of detail work in action, when it comes to creating a sustainable business culture. There is a certain fun, quirkiness of Western-styled art that is placed through the dining area, which is actually an old train car with built add-ons. Throw in the ‘found’ coffee cups (none of them match, and that’s the beauty of it – another fun thing), top it off with a stick-to-your-ribs menu, and it’s a winner. But to be part of local culture, you have to be in local culture, and the Hammers are there for Alta, with their kids graduating from the school system, and the support they give to the town. This, plus the down - home menu and service, is why the regulars keep coming back weekly. Homemade sausage gravy, hand breaded tenderloins, even a liver and onions plate – just good, old-styled Iowa small town food. Customers have begged Toni to open in the evening, but she won’t do it. ”I feel the big reason for a small business to be successful is the that the owner needs to be there, and working,” says Toni. Kevin and Toni have booked class reunions, Christmas parties, and wedding rehearsal dinners. ”I feel that Buffalo Ridge has been a great asset to the community – a place to gather with friends, and have a good meal,” says Toni. So far, this appears to be true, as the Buffalo Ridge business model is a warm, and welcoming example of small-town success.