Every city seems to have one. That gathering space - that place that helps keep the life blood of a community pumping.
Many small town main streets serve this purpose, as a resurgence of value has been placed upon our many local gems.
And thankfully so.
I found myself in Windom on a beautiful, late into the summer, afternoon.
Pictured Above: River City Eatery Employee Carly Wehmeyer
It's an interesting thing acquainting oneself with a community - sometimes one in which I have never before had the pleasure of visiting. I can tell you, if you want to learn about a community - start with main street.
I am gifted with the opportunity to travel into so many communities that are served by Pioneer Public Television - so often times my vehicle, or a lone table tucked away at a diner, doubles as my office.
Such was my intent on this day...I had one specific task to complete and then I figured I'd grab a bite and organize some notes before heading back on the road.
Little did I know that I was in store for a big dose of Windom community pride and spirit - nor did I know I was in store for that "special moment" each town seems to offer - one of that special place or person that just stands out.
These moments represent the best part of my work and why it's such a gift to travel into so many wonderful communities. I found my "Windom moment" at River City Eatery.
It was upon recommendation from a local retailer that I walked thru the door. And, I immediately walked right back out...to grab my camera. I had an inkling something special was happening here - and I was correct.
I asked two fantastically friendly employees if I could snap a few photos and speak to the owner.
Enter Mari Harries, proprietress.
Since I happened to stumble in on the very rare day that Mari isn't there, she was kind enough to take a few moments and visit with me over the phone. And for all those little questions that have a tendency to pop into my head after the fact - I had Carly.
Speaking to Mari, I was quick to realize that she gets it. She understands small towns, she understands community development, and she understands the power of communication and community involvement. She understands the power of creating space where folks of all ages can come together.
This knowledge may stem from being born and raised in Windom, but it seems to have blossomed during her many travels. After graduating high school, like so many of our youth, Mari says she had "zero intentions" of coming back to her hometown of Windom - she wanted to see the world.
Eventually, with time, she says her priorities changed - she moved back to Windom. But, she also wanted to draw other young folks back as well. Something she considers to be key in the revitalization of rural America.
When Mari moved back to Windom she noticed changes. So, she sought out to fill a need and a dream. It was at the local McDonald's that she had coffee with folks that had come before her - and recognizing that the knowledge she sought existed and was well within her reach - she inquired.
"Tell me what it used to be like in Windom." "Tell me about the past." It was the answers to these questions that she was planning to incorporate into what was to become River City Eatery.
She wondered why the coffee folks kept referring to Windom as "River City." It surfaced over and over during coffee. But Windom is, in fact, a river city. The Des Moines river gently flows through Island Park on the south end of town.
It was this emerging theme that further inspired Mari. Her many travels also served as inspiration - it was something she felt she could share with the community and visitors alike. And so, River City Eatery is a hub that pays homage to Windom's history - but with a refreshing "trendy feel."
River City Eatery is also reflective of a "collection" of all the places she's loved in her travels. She says she aspired to weave these components and it all come together. The thought behind the eye catching, yet subtle statement of flying yellow pig hanging in the corner is something I have yet to inquire about...although I have my guesses.
Interestingly, Mari is very familiar with the building that is now home to River City Eatery - as she worked there in high school when it was known as Micks Bakery - which opened in 1956 and was in business for 60 years until the owner retired in the early 00's.
The building sat completely empty until just over three years ago when Mari began to set into motion her dream of owning a coffee shop. But River City Eatery is much, much more than a coffee shop.
Mari's creativity and spirit is something that is felt even in her absence - as I experienced. Not only with the décor - orange checkered flooring and light fixtures original to the building that lend to that "trendy" feel - but with her food!
Ahhhh...the food. And for this, I relied on Carly - who has been a server for nearly two years. As with asking a local where to go for a bite, I deferred to Carly for her expertise with regard to the menu. And neither failed me.
In fact as I write my mind is fixed on the "Italian Affair." Pepperoni and Genoa salami held together with roasted red pepper, pesto mayo and oozing provolone cheese - served on a grilled hoagie with a side of marinara for dipping.
If your mouth isn't watering yet - at Carly's recommendation I had what's called the "half and half = better one." For just $8.00, I had a choice of soup, salad, sandwich or pasta - to make two perfect halves or a better 1.
So, I opted for the cheesy chicken tortilla soup to complete my other half. As I perused the rest of the menu my food had soon arrived. I knew in this splendid little moment in time that if it tasted even half as good as it looked I'd be a happy camper.
The presentation was as colorful as it was lovely - right down to the multi-colored tortillas that had been delicately sprinkled a top the soup. It was obvious care had been taken in the preparation of my dish. And the taste...if you can imagine, even better!
Cheddar Bacon Lasagna is one example of a trial that is now not only a fixture on the menu - but with a slight "twist." Served with garlic toast - this lasagna "roll up" comes covered in aged cheddar sauce and is topped with bacon.
Not only is the menu one of a kind - it's as if Mari is jumping right out of the menu - her personality is infused in every aspect. The menu reads very casually, with a touch of wit and wisdom that brings us selections we've not seen anywhere else but River City Eatery. There are also a number of vegetarian and gluten free options to satisfy a variety of cravings.
And since I'm still on food - I asked Carly what she loved about her work. Born and raised in Windom, it is with a smile that she says she loves being introduced to so many different foods that she hasn't tried before.
She said she loves it that Mari has expanded her palette - two things she had never tried before working at River City Eatery were pesto and feta. It should be no wonder that one of her favorite menu items is called Pesto Party which consists of the swirly shaped cavatappi pasta tossed with pesto basil sauce, roasted red pepper and topped with feta cheese!
She also loves the energy she is exposed to. Art and creativity are expressed in a variety of ways at River City Eatery - not just the menu. River City Eatery a place to gather and enjoy local music - it is a place of artistic endeavor that takes on many forms - from the pallet porch t-shirts to the baked goods to the various community celebrations in their many forms.
This past summer Mari created a pallet porch for folks to enjoy - with her permission I snagged a photo off their Facebook page that I would encourage all to visit and like. You'll see that the River City Eatery is much more than a restaurant - it is a community gathering space.
I would describe this locally owned small business as the living and breathing expression of a dream realized. Personality shines through everything...from the menu to the aprons that Mari's mom makes...to the many ways that art and food are creatively interwoven into a single expression - or a single experience.
And it is this experience that you must have for yourself - something that must be felt to be truly appreciated. I look forward to my return to the lovely community of Windom and to the River City Eatery - and with any luck I will meet the bright impassioned spirit that set out to fill a need.
And if the flying pig in the corner is any indication...there is hope for all of us to fill a need while fulfilling a dream.
Have a look at the photos below - and for more information visit http://www.rivercityeatery.com/.