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Published July 18, 2010, 12:00 AM

Iconic Tower City café again open for business

Tower City, N.D. It’s a place where U.S. senators shared counter space with farmers, the apron-clad waitresses called locals by name, and the homemade caramel rolls were as big as the hubcaps on the semis parked outside.

Tower City, N.D.

It’s a place where U.S. senators shared counter space with farmers, the apron-clad waitresses called locals by name, and the homemade caramel rolls were as big as the hubcaps on the semis parked outside.

It was the Tower View Café and Fuel Stop, one of North Dakota’s most-loved travel stops alongside Interstate-94.

And, after a brief but grim period during which the iconic landmark shut down in March 2009, it’s again open for business.

The newly rebuilt Tower Travel Center opened under new ownership two months ago.

It’s been hopping ever since.

On a recent weekday afternoon, a waitress ducks out of the kitchen to inform manager Allen Lovro that the café has sold 500 pies since it opened. Lovro grins and shakes his head. “The pies are back,” he says. “The bakers can’t keep up. Every night, we’re emptied out, and we have to start over.”

It’s little wonder. The investors for the new travel center shrewdly capitalized on one of the eatery’s best-known assets: from-scratch baked goods. And so the bakery is front and center here.

The first thing you see upon entering the café is an open, stainless steel prep area, where bakers roll out pastry and mix up frosting for still-warm ginger-cream cookies. A rotating pie case showcases the fruits of their labors – pecan filling nestled in hand-fluted crusts, cherry pies with garnet-red filling and the café’s famed sour cream raisin pie with 4-inch high meringue.

But by restoring the truck stop for this small community, population 350, the owners did more than bring back a good bakery. They helped revitalize Tower City’s heart.

Marcella Richman is a former Tower City resident who wrote a cookbook in the early ’90s called “North Dakota – Where Food is Love.” The book dedicated a whole chapter to recipes from the old Tower View café.

“It was the meeting place. It’s the conference center. It’s the talk-therapy place,” says Richman, now living in Valley City. “It was the social hub beyond the school. I couldn’t believe it when it closed. The lights had never been turned off for 40 years before that.”

U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan had patronized the truck stop for 40 years whenever he traveled between Fargo and Bismarck. “You could see in recent years that they were having a hard time,” he says. “When I drove by and saw it was dark, I thought it was the end of an era.”

‘Six or seven stools’

When Willard Richman Sr. and his neighbor Norman Anderson built the truck stop in the middle of a farm field in 1960, some people thought they were crazy. Who would visit a gas station in the middle of nowhere?

But Richman and Anderson were visionaries. They’d seen how roadside businesses had cropped up to serve travelers on the new interstates crisscrossing the country. They envisioned a fuel stop with “six or seven stools” where people could have coffee, recalls Mark Richman, Willard’s second-oldest son.

The new truck stop at Exit 307 became more successful than even Willard could anticipate. It was where the service groups met to plan events, families gathered to celebrate anniversaries, and people came for coffee after Sunday morning church. “All the farmers would come in the morning, and before their day started, they would have coffee and settle business,” Marcella Richman recalls. “Of course, weather was always a main topic.”

It also became a major employer in the small town. Tower City native Betty McLaflin recalls how she and her high school classmates flocked to the shiny new café for part-time jobs. Marcella Richman says the business provided the perfect workplace portal for farm wives. “They could work in their element in the kitchen,” she says.

Thanks to the plethora of good local cooks, the café’s dessert menu became legendary. It would become known for Mabel Hanson’s apple doughnuts, Joanne Wetch’s walnut cream pie and the eatery’s famed sour cream raisin pie.

Over time, the fixtures became dated, but even that added to its charm. The waitresses continued to wear dresses and aprons. The owners insisted on using fresh meat instead of the more convenient, pre-pressed stuff. “It was just a real original place,” says Joanne Wetch, who ran the business with her husband, Duane, from 1974 to 2004. “We tried to stay old-fashioned. We tried to be different.”

For that reason, travelers from all over the country kept stopping there. That included long-haul truckers, who considered Tower City a necessary stop even if their tanks were full. If the town’s residents traveled elsewhere and told people where they were from, the response was the same: “Tower City: Isn’t that the place with the great pie?”

Even some of the state’s best-known luminaries frequented the spot. In his 40 years of political service, U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan says he routinely picked up peanut butter cookies and a Coke whenever he drove by. His peanut butter pit stops became so predictable that he recalls one trip in which his Washington staffers were trying to contact him. This was in the day before cell phones; all they knew was he was somewhere between Bismarck and Fargo. They figured if they left a message at the truck stop, he was bound to get it.

“Sure enough,” Dorgan says, sounding amused, “I pulled into the truck stop to buy cookies, and they said, ‘Your office just called, and they want you to call them.’ I had formed such a habit.”

Dorgan made his most recent stop a few weeks ago. He was happy to report that the peanut butter cookies are still tasty.

“It’s nice to see they have a good restaurant there and a good bakery,” Dorgan says. “It’s provided a lot of life back on that little corner of the interstate.”

A town’s heart stops

For a bleak year or so before the truck stop reopened, that little corner completely shut down. Motorists, expecting to fuel up on gas or pie, would pull into the parking lot and then make a slow U-turn when they realized it was no longer in business.

The 50-year-old building had become dilapidated and obsolete. In March 2009, the lights turned off for good. “It just hadn’t been able to keep up with other competitors, so the business just kept going down and down and down,” Mark Richman says. “It was tough to see.”

When a small town loses its café, it seems to lose it heart. Tower City was no exception. There was no place to fuel up lawnmowers, grab a quick cup of coffee or hang out after church. And there were no more jobs.

“It was kind of heartbreaking to work 30 years and have the business and the reputation this place had and then to see it close up,” Joanne Wetch says.

Betty McLaflin, whose first job was waitressing there, said the café’s closure left a huge void. “We couldn’t get milk or a loaf of bread,” she says. “You don’t know how much you miss something until it’s gone.”

But almost immediately, the townspeople talked about the need to rebuild.

At the forefront were two of Willard’s sons: Tim, a Tower City farmer, and Mark, a commercial real estate agent in Fargo. The brothers knew they didn’t have the capital between themselves to start up such a venture. But with surprisingly little trouble, they found 15 investors from the community.

“It was hurting the community not having this here,” Lovro says. “They wanted it to be back and alive and better than ever.”

The old saying goes that too many cooks will spoil the broth. Oddly enough, that adage didn’t apply here. Each investor automatically gravitated toward some aspect of the new business – whether it be the gas pumps, the convenience store or the restaurant. And all seemed to be on the same page when it came to what the community needed.

Early on, they talked of adding only a fast-food sandwich franchise. But Mark Richman thought of his father’s long-ago commitment to that little coffee counter. “I knew the gas station did well because of the café and the café did well because of the gas station,” he says. “I knew it wouldn’t be nearly as successful if we just sold diesel.”

A from-scratch bakery soon became part of their plan. They also decided on a convenience store, which would provide a quick grocery stop for locals and a grab-and-go option for today’s travelers.

The old buildings were demolished over Halloween weekend of last year, and contractors were on the job Nov. 1.

The new truck stop is 9,000 square feet, 4,000 of which contain the restaurant, bakery and kitchen. It’s a mix of old and new. On the one hand, it offers updated amenities like Wi-Fi capabilities, a modern teal-and-copper color scheme and a take-out deli section.

On the other, the menu features home-style foods like meatloaf, real mashed potatoes and pumpkin bars bigger than a trucker’s wallet. Some of the old café’s bakers have shared pie recipes and baking tips with the new employees.

Even a few of the servers have returned, like Tammy Richman, who waited tables at the original place for 17 years. “People love it,” the career waitress says. “They tell me they’re so happy to have it back. I tell them, ‘So am I.’ ”

Once again, the truck stop has become a major employer, with more than 45 people on its payroll. In fact, when drawing from a small-town population, it’s sometimes hard to fill all positions, Lovro says.

“There are jobs here,” he says. “We pay our servers above average: minimum wage.”

But happiest of all may be the people of Tower City, like regulars Betty and Rick McLaflin. Each sipping a cup of coffee, they stretch out at a table in the travel center’s convenience store.

“Everyone really appreciates those who invested their money for the rest of us,” Betty says.

“I really hope it makes it,” Rick adds. “It’s such a nice place, and it will take a lot of business to keep it going. But we definitely do our part.”

Mark Richman believes his dad would be pleased. “I think he’d be real proud of his community,” he says. “But you know in smaller towns, everyone knows each other and trusts each other. I think that’s the definition of community.”

If you go

  • What: Grand opening of Tower Travel Center, which will include door prizes, displays, a recognition of former employees, a pie-eating contest and a Friday-night picnic dinner
  • When: Aug. 18-20
  • Where: Tower Travel Center, right off I-94’s Exit 307, Tower City, N.D.
  • Info: For more information, call (701) 749-6000 or check out the travel center’s page on Facebook.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525