By: Jerome Lobner
Polish Days 2011 was to be the opening weekend for one of Loup City’s most iconic businesses, the Loup City Diner. Unfortunately for Chuck and Cheri Radtke, “ our big refrigerator crashed and it took about a week to get another. Probably lucky we didn’t dive into that particularly deep pool without having some time to work things out!”.
Nine years later, Chuck and Cheri and their staff are an important part of the life of Loup City. They had to decide how their business would fit into the town. Chuck noted,” other food service businesses in town informed our decision on hours. There was an obvious niche in the 0630 to 1900 (that’s 6:30 AM to 7 PM to non-military types) for residents and visitors to be able to get a good home-style meal without the burden of hours in the kitchen and dishes afterwards. Sundays are different since this is a community with deep roots in faith. So we run a breakfast buffet to allow people to come for a good meal after church. Then we cut the day short so everyone (our employees most of all) can spend some of the day with their families”.
The Radtke’s think a lot of their Diner family. Chuck said, ”although we’re not related, sometimes the Loup City Diner “family” seems like it. Our long-term cooks are Mary Maret, Joyce Carter, and Brittany Crow. Our full-time waitresses are now Sarah Maret and Brittany Crow, and our part-time waitresses are Alicia Rhoads and Desirae Williamson. Cheri and I are really lucky to have such good people helping us. The drama is minimal, their work ethic is great, and we even have some fun working together. Looking back over 9 years, the most important things are talent (we would be absolutely lost without Joyce, Brittany and Mary who cook breakfast orders at the same time they’re cooking 20 servings of a lunch Special), and a very special loyalty”.
Chuck had some thoughts on why the employees have made the business successful, “we’re lucky in that all of them are loyal to the concept of an eating establishment that focuses on the patrons having a good time. So they’re loyal to that concept even when those very patrons are having a bad day; which sometimes means deliberately not being upset by cranky people who then don’t tip. They‘re also loyal to each other, as each follows the prior and the sum of the work depends on each of them doing their part, or flexing hours for someone else’s family emergency”.
Many people do not realize there are certain daily routines necessary for the successful operation of a restaurant. Chuck noted the daily schedule is starting the day at 6 A.M. and making the three pots of coffee and readying the equipment. At the end of the day, the business is cleaned and the business is closed for the day when all the dishes and pans are cleaned and put away.
The menu is an important part of the Diner’s business. Chuck noted, “favorites change by the season; during the winter, our Soup & Sandwich Specials go really well. Come summer, Reubens, and Chicken Strip Baskets are most popular. Our best Lunch Special is Meatloaf by sale numbers, though I personally like the Pork Loin Special best. Cheeseburgers, Hamburgers, and Patty Melts always do well, and I’m proud to say that we have a small but extremely loyal group of customers who come in for the Liver and Onions!”
Most people are aware from the news how the COVID-19 pandemic has effected the food service business. The Loup City Diner has been rolling with the changes. Chuck had a few thoughts about this, “COVID-19 has hit all the food service businesses hard. When we closed the dining area, that took a big part of the Diner experience away (eating with friends and family in a pleasant environment). The gift; however, keeps on giving and judging from the way it ramped up in Hall County, the potential for local outbreak is high. What does a business do to protect their customers and employees? There are two aspects to look at: physical impact, and effect on life.
Physically, we started by replacing hospitality with service, adjusting by offering curbside and local delivery, and emphasizing take-out service. Our interface with customers is a handoff of good food for money at a distance (about 6 feet oddly enough, and over a counter when face to face) and pretty short time-wise. We do talk to people when they come in to pick up their meals, but we keep our distance. We just started a mask policy for all of us in the Diner, as a further barrier to possible transmission. Finally, we clean. We wipe down the counters and doors with a peroxide solution, letting it set for 30 seconds to kill . . . everything. We wash our hands after every exchange. We even wipe down our pens so customers don’t have to worry about “picking it up” when they sign their checks or credit slips. We believe all these things will reduce to zero the chance of the Diner being a transmission node, but there is more to the situation than distancing.
Chuck has an interesting philosophy about the Corona Virus, “I believe human beings are like engines. Both are designed to operate against resistance; without that resistance they over-rev and sustain damage. Shutting down also creates a problem; without active circulation hoses rot, seals fail, fluids leak. I don’t envision our waitresses walking around leaking fluids, but it is important to focus on something other than either the all-encompassing bad news about the virus or about one’s own circumstance. Barring loss due to all our workers falling ill (and they will not get sick from the Diner!), we won’t close. We’ve already done repetitive deliveries to people self-isolating. We also maintain our focus by working through an extensive “to-do” list of things we always wanted to do but couldn’t due to customer’s presence or the time that service takes. Deep cleaning, re-organizing, fixing, painting and upgrades, or working on new meals are all examples of what our “family” is doing with the time available. We also have started making masks (Loup City Diner and Sewing Shop?), which we are giving to customers who make a purchase of more than $10. Not only do we give them away, but now we wear them when customers come in.” He finished, “In a nutshell; customers of the Diner will always be able to get a great meal, employees of the Diner will always have a good job to go to. When the therapeutics and vaccinations catch up, our people will be healthy physically and financially, and have the pride of not going belly up in the face of this”.
Chuck and Cheri have some favorite things about their business. Chuck said, “I really enjoy two things; the conversation with all kinds of people in our dining area, and fixing things. Given that the Diner was built in 1907, I have many opportunities to fix things.
Cheri added her favorites, “the customers, being creative with cooking, the people we work with. There is a lot of laughter at work. Makes for a good work environment”.
Many people did not know Chuck’s plans when he moved to Loup City, “when we came out here, just retired from the military in Miami, I had planned to just flip houses. I’d always liked building things, and figured the money would help with my retirement. I’d just finished putting a new roof on our first house when Ron Czaplewski passed away. Shortly after, one of the ladies in town asked Cheri about taking on the Snack Shop as it was then known. Cheri had managed a place called Hobo Joe’s before we met, and she was interested, so it seemed like a good thing to do. I got all the remodeling I could ever want, and she got to run another restaurant.”
Chuck told of how he was able to start the business, “We got a lot of help. First; the Loup City County Economic Development Corporation helped us to buy the main Diner building, then the second (what the public sees as our buffet room). Then Economic Corporation President Mike King actually negotiated for and bought all three of Ron and Betties buildings. The Corporation then loaned us enough money to purchase the buildings. A few months later, Michael Eurek (Sherman County Economic Development Officer) told us about the LB840 program which allowed us to get an operating loan at a very low interest rate. We used that to pay off the Loup City Economic Development loan and get operating capital to remodel and start up. That loan was paid in full early last year. I was amazed at the trust granted to us by Loup City, and since then have always felt an obligation to return that favor”.
The Radtkes are involved in Loup City with Chuck noting, “I’m proud to be a member of the Chamber, and the American Legion. Both organizations do well by the City, and the experience of owning a business allows me the perspective to have (sometimes maybe too much) input. I am also part of the Community Redevelopment Authority which is aimed at improving the physical and economic development in Loup City. I recently became a member of the Junk Jaunt Board of Directors, which is a total blast!”
Cheri is a member of the Legion Auxiliary and contributes a lot to many organizations like the Boosters, and other social or civic organizations.
Chuck’s final comments sum up what a lot of local business people feel about their own businesses when he noted, “besides “paying back” the trust of Loup City from our inception, I believe that the best way to have a good outcome in your life is to get involved in those things that affect you. ‘You can’t stir a pot without sticking your finger in’ is true in many ways; a person can get burned! On the other hand, stirring is important; I would rather spend some time and effort to make things better than sit on my couch lamenting living in a bad place. From a business perspective, I believe that there are great opportunities when a person has access to decisions about community events. Everyone has seen the test-tube filled with agar and a few fruit-fly larvae. They grow and fill the tube, but eventually die off for lack of food. A rural city, Loup City, is like that test tube. Life in Loup City gets better with outsiders coming to visit or stay. Many of the city and community organizations create opportunities for bring the rest of the world to Loup City. Those events benefit us all in quality of life, entertainment, new residents, sales, and yes, even taxes, sometimes it’s difficult, but it’s always worth the effort.”
The Loup City Area Chamber of Commerce is proud of our city and is highlighting each month a local business chosen from a drawing of members of the Chamber. Good business is where you live, and patronage by you, our readers, makes for a good business.