Unable to find workers, Park River’s Main Street café closesOut to Lunch cafe will be “out to lunch” after Wednesday, unless a buyer for the Main Street business can be found. Julie Johnston, who bought the former Welch’s Café nearly six years ago, said the closing is not the result of sagging sales or population drain. Rather, the problem is a lack of help.
By: Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald
PARK RIVER, N.D. — Out to Lunch cafe will be “out to lunch” after Wednesday, unless a buyer for the Main Street business can be found.
Julie Johnston, who bought the former Welch’s Café nearly six years ago, said the closing is not the result of sagging sales or population drain. Rather, the problem is a lack of help.
“We just can’t keep up,” she said. “We need a few more people to run it more efficiently.”
Johnston was a cook and waitress at Welch’s for 15 years before it closed its doors in August 2007. Two months later, Johnston reopened the business, which until Wednesday is the only café on Briggs Avenue, Park River’s main street.
At the time, Johnston’s two sons, Adam and Alex, both in their 20s at the time, helped her run the café. The café was open 7 days a week and until 7 p.m. In addition, it catered evening and weekend events in the Walsh County town of 1,400 located about 60 miles northwest of Grand Forks.
“I was supposed to be the first to leave, not the boys,” she said.
Johnston has tried to cope with the job issue by cutting back the café hours to 4 p.m.
These days, Alex and his sister, Jana Fjeld, have been helping out on weekends.
Johnston’s 79-year-old mother, Jeanette Clemens, bakes pies, cookies and bars every day.
Teenagers Jasmine Duke, Grand Forks, and Lexi Greicar, Park River, have been waiting tables this summer, but they were planning to leave soon to return to school, she said.
“It’s just getting to be too much,” Johnston said.
In June, Walsh County’s jobless rate was 6.1 percent, the fifth highest in the state. It follows Rolette, 16.8 percent; Benson, 8.4 percent; Sioux, 7 percent; and Pembina, 6.3 percent.
North Dakota’s overall, not-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in June was 3.2 percent, according to Job Service North Dakota.
“Getting help is the issue, which is sad, because they have a very good business there,” said Tom Larson, Park River city auditor.
The closing has local regulars, especially the group of retirees that gathers every morning around the large round table — known as the Table of Knowledge — searching for answers — perhaps for the first time since the last time the cafe closed.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Ron Hagen.
There had been some talk among the men to meet at one of their houses for the next few days, so they don’t get out of the habit of shaking dice to see who picks up the tab, according to Duke. But that isn’t likely to happen, she said.
Park River has one other café, Gramma Jo’s, located along N.D. Highway 17 on the west end of town, but even that is closed for the next week or so for vacation. That restaurant is for sale, too.
Johnston said her Out to Lunch business and the building are listed with a real estate agent. She and her husband, Harold, remodeled the second floor apartment and have been living there. But they’ll move back to the farm.
“We’ve had some inquiries, but that’s it,” she said. “The business is really good. A person could make a good living here.”
“Anytime you lose a business in a community of this size it hurts,” Mayor Dan Stenvold said. “It’s a Main Street business, and I don’t want to see any empty buildings on Main Street.”
Call Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1110; or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.