Hard times for Wilmont's cafeCommunity-owned operation struggles to remain open
WILMONT — With the closure of the Wilmont Liquor store and bar on New Year’s Eve, board members of the Wilmont Family Recreation Center (WFRC) are more determined than ever to keep the doors open to the community-owned cafe, four-lane bowling alley and “essentials” grocery store in town
By: Julie Buntjer, Worthington Daily Globe
WILMONT — With the closure of the Wilmont Liquor store and bar on New Year’s Eve, board members of the Wilmont Family Recreation Center (WFRC) are more determined than ever to keep the doors open to the community-owned cafe, four-lane bowling alley and “essentials” grocery store in town. The WFRC stands just half a block down the street from the liquor store on Wilmont’s main drag.
“We talk about what-if, but since the liquor store is closing, the board feels we need to keep this here,” said Mary Weidert, secretary-treasurer of the seven-member board that oversees operation of the business. “As long as the community is behind us, we will work at it. We have a pretty dedicated bunch of board members.”
Dedicated or not, it’s hard to keep the doors open on a business that has seen a drastic reduction in customers over the years. A “For Sale” sign looms in the window — put there in October, about the same time the “For Sale” sign was put up on the front of the municipal liquor store. As of yet, no one has stepped forward with enough interest to buy out the business.
It was in 1975 that a group of Wilmont residents gathered to discuss buying the local cafe and bowling alley from the previous owner. By September of that year, shares were sold at $25 each, and anyone who wanted to help save the business could purchase up to $2,000 in shares. Initially, 100 shares were sold, and that ultimately increased to 230 shares.
“Most of the people felt when they bought the shares that they were giving a donation anyway,” Weidert said. “If there was money left over, we’d donate it back to the Wilmont Lions or the Wilmont Community Center.”
It was about a decade ago that business really started to decline at the WFRC, and Weidert said “it’s gotten much worse” in the last five years. That’s when they started hosting fundraising suppers about once a month at the cafe.
“When we started doing our suppers and put the word out that we were in trouble — the expenses were eating us up — people came forward,” she added. “Our locals are very dedicated. I’ve noticed checks for $50 and they came to eat soup.”
Weidert and her fellow board members don’t want to think about what might happen to the town if the cafe and bowling alley has to close.
“Every time you lose a business in town, it just takes something away from the town,” she said. “I never thought the bar would close. I just can’t imagine that.”
If the cafe were to ultimately close, Weidert said there wouldn’t be a sandwich or a noon meal available in the community. The senior dining program would also be impacted, as the cafe has been preparing those meals for years.
Yet, it’s difficult to keep a business open when business profits aren’t enough to pay the bills.
“It’s real hard to maintain enough people eating dinner to cover the propane bill, the electric bill — just the daily expenses,” Weidert lamented. “The people just aren’t here anymore.”
Thirty-seven years ago, when the cafe and bowling alley were taken over by community shareholders, it wasn’t uncommon to see 60 to 70 people a day coming in for the cafe's noon special.
“Now, we’re fortunate if we get 10,” she said. “The small towns are just disintegrating, we’re just dying. We have no young people.”
For many years, the cafe and bowling alley were enough to sustain the business. Then, when the local grocery store closed, they put up some shelves and added “substantials,” as a way to fill the void. Yet, with the cafe open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Weidert admits it’s not real convenient for those who live in the bedroom community.
“We debated if some senior citizens would donate time to sit here (in the evenings), but there still isn’t enough call for it,” she said. “Most of the things that sit on the (grocery) shelf are things they use in the cafe - it’s not anything extra.”
The bowling alley, which went through a lane update and transition from manual pinsetters to machines back in 1975-1976, isn’t drawing in a whole lot of business these days, either.
When leagues formed in the fall of 1976, business was booming. Weidert said two shifts were operated every night, with mixed couples bowling on Sundays and Wednesdays, ladies’ nights and men’s nights.
“Every night was filled,” she said.
By about 2000, league play started to drop off; and by 2004, the mixed-couples league was completely eliminated.
“We just all got older,” she said. “It’s an age thing. There are so many less people, and other activities, too.”
These days, the bowling alley plays host to ladies’ league on Mondays and men’s league on Tuesdays. Thanks to the Wilmont Lions club, there’s a 14-week youth bowling program offered on Saturdays beginning at Thanksgiving.
“They can have up to 25 kids on a Saturday in here bowling,” Weidert said.
The bowling alley and cafe employ two full-time people and three part-timers, including a cook, waitresses and staff to oversee the lanes during league and youth bowling.
The Wilmont VFW is hosting the band,Starfire on Monday night, performing from 8 p.m. to midnight, as a fundraiser for the VFW and the WFRC. Tickets may be purchased in advance from Wilmont Hardware, Wilmont Oil and United Prairie Bank.
A fundraiser burger night is also planned by the WFRC from 5 to 7 p.m., Jan. 9 at the cafe. The event will include a build-your-own-burger and homemade pies and bars.
The seven-member board that oversees the WFRC has a combined 130 years of volunteer service to the business. In addition to Weidert, board members include Rick Penning, president; Leonard Hieronimus, vice president; Lee Smith, Mark Slater, Becky Remackel and Donna Scholtes, who wants to retire from her post as bookkeeper as soon as the board finds a replacement.
“We’re just getting all too old to do these things,” Weidert said. “If we could get some younger people to take over our positions, it would be great. We would stay open as we are.
“We’ve always tried to keep our prices in line so the people of the community could afford it — they could feel like it was theirs, they weren’t being charged above and beyond.”
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.