BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. - The majority of independent restaurants go out of business within just a few years of opening.
But 117 years later, The Wilkin Drink & Eatery is still bucking the trend here along Minnesota Avenue, blocks away from the bridge that connects Breckenridge to Wahpeton, N.D.
The establishment got its start in 1897, when Frank Miksche bought a three-story building and turned it into a hotel with a bar annex and restaurant. It stayed in the Miksche family throughout the 1900s, operated next by Frank’s sons, Anthony and Leo, then Anthony’s sons, Richard and Tony.
Over the years, the business saw its share of changes. The hotel was demolished in the 1960s, and in 1989, a large addition was built next to the old bar and restaurant space, bringing The Wilkin to its current seating capacity of about 150.
But the biggest change happened in 2002, when Richard Miksche’s son, Robert, was ready to sell and get out of the family business. The chef, Tom Materi, decided to make the jump into owning a restaurant – getting the chance to work for himself after 25 years in the industry.
Still, Materi said the decision to buy wasn’t all about his own business opportunities.
“The restaurant wasn’t doing great so to speak in the community,” he said. “I’d been here for 30-some years, and I wanted to bring it back for the people that supported it over the years. Basically, I did it for the community and myself.”
Old building, new trends
After buying the business with his wife Peggy, Materi made it a point to keep the old character of the joint front and center as he put his own stamp on the place.
He said he’s been lucky enough to not face any major renovations on the old building over the past 12 years – especially considering the half of the building that now houses a large wooden bar and several wooden booths has stood here for more than a century.
That part of The Wilkin still boasts its original tin ceilings, while the other half of the restaurant that was added on in 1989 has similar ceiling tiles and stained-glass windows that flood portions of the dining area with tinted sunlight during the day.
Even after more than a decade in charge, Materi said he’s kept a good part of the menu the same as it was back when he started as a chef in 1997.
That includes some of the most popular items, six varieties of specialized hamburgers built around half-pound, never-frozen patties that were created by the generations of Miksches.
But Materi has worked to modernize the offerings in other ways, adding salads, wraps, dinner entrees and flatbread pizzas over the years to offer diners more choices.
While The Wilkin’s food selection still is fairly standard fare for a bar and restaurant of its kind, Materi said his focus on quality and service helps his eats stand out from the local competition.
His bleu cheese burger has become more popular, he said, and locals now know to stop by for the soup. Like all of the sauces and dressings at The Wilkin, the soups are made from scratch, and customers pack the place on Tuesdays when he has tomato soup on hand.
The restaurant cuts its own steaks and only serves hand-pattied burgers, Materi said, and the au gratin potatoes and Alfredo sauce are made following his own recipes.
Still, he can’t take all the credit for keeping The Wilkin going strong more than a century later.
Materi’s four children, ranging in age from 11 to 25, all work at the restaurant, and oldest son Cuyler, 23, is thinking about taking over the business – someday.
Materi also gets assistance from his wife Peggy, who helps out part time when she’s not busy with her full-time day job, as well as his father, sister, nephew, and about 40 other employees.
He’s planning to tweak the menu again soon to meet more modern customer demands, including adding gluten-free options and vegetarian dishes, such as veggie nachos and a veggie burger. But Materi said he hasn’t yet felt pressured to reduce the large, hearty portions that are a hit among diners, even as more Americans try to eat healthier.
For now, Materi’s biggest ongoing concern is keeping up with the regular maintenance that’s required for a building of this age – especially the original exterior brick wall that used to separate the restaurant from the former hotel and now divides the two sides of The Wilkin.
He doesn’t much care for the paperwork that comes with owning a business, but said he’s happy juggling responsibilities as owner, manager and fill-in cook of the historical restaurant.
“I like doing everything,” he said. “I don’t like just doing one thing constantly.”
The Wilkin, 508 Minnesota Ave., serves food 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and he bar is open 11 a.m. to midnight or later Monday through Saturday.