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As firefighters battled city hall fire, Ellsworth Cafe owner kept them fed

ELLSWORTH -- When firefighters from more than half a dozen different departments descended on Ellsworth in mid-January to battle a blaze that consumed the town's city hall, Ellsworth Cafe owner Ray Conklin stepped into action.

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During the fire that destroyed the Ellsworth City Hall in January, Ellsworth Cafe owner Ray Conklin stepped in to feed the firefighters and warm them up with coffee. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

ELLSWORTH - When firefighters from more than half a dozen different departments descended on Ellsworth in mid-January to battle a blaze that consumed the town’s city hall, Ellsworth Cafe owner Ray Conklin stepped into action.

“My heart just stopped when I rolled into town and saw all the lights,” recalled Conklin. “I thought it was the cafe.”

Instead, the blaze was across the street, and the main thoroughfare through town was blocked.

Looking for a way to help, Conklin found Mayor Tasha Domeyer on the street and a plan was made to retrieve the coffee urns stored at the fire hall and set them up in the cafe. Conklin started brewing the coffee.

“We had it set up for firefighters to come in and get coffee, but no one was coming in,” he said. “Then I thought they were probably pretty hungry. If they didn’t have a chance to eat, I had to feed them.”

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As he began frying eggs and forming breakfast sandwiches, the women gathered inside the cafe for morning coffee stepped in to help.

“The gals offered to take the sandwiches out and pass them around,” he said. “We filled up the coffee urns, and the gals brought the cups out and the coffee to help keep them warm.”

When lunchtime arrived and the firefighters were still busy working, Conklin began making a bunch of pizzas.

“I wanted something that was easy for them to hold,” he said, adding that cheeseburgers and fries were also prepared. “It was not warm (outside). They were cold.”

As the day wore on and Conklin learned some firefighters would need to stay on the scene overnight, he left the cafe door open, the coffee pot on and a selection of danishes and cinnamon rolls waiting on the counter.

“They were very respectful - that’s what I expected,” he said. “That’s something you can do in a small community.”

While Conklin was busy making food, people stepped into action to help him. Not only did his coffee crowd deliver the food and coffee to firefighters, they also helped clean up the kitchen. Others stopped in offering money to help pay for food for the firemen.

Conklin’s distributor, after learning what he had done, donated a carrot cake and reimbursed the cafe for the food he used from his order - sausage, eggs, cheese, bread and hamburger buns.

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“You just don’t see something like that from a distributor,” Conklin said of Reinhart and his sales representative, Amy Altstatt.

Though the city hall fire was a terrible thing for the community, Conklin said the silver lining was “seeing the community come together and help everyone out.”

“I have to give praise to God,” he said. “I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. We were taught that it was better to give than to receive. I never even thought about it. I saw it and that’s what you do.

“If I was out fighting a fire and was wet and hungry, I would want someone to bring me food. It felt nice to be able to do something for the community.”

A southwest Minnesota transplant Born in upstate New York, Conklin was 11 years old when he moved with his family to southwest Minnesota. He graduated from Luverne High School, then returned to New York to study at the Culinary Institute of America. After he’d mastered the skills of working in the kitchen, however, he decided to switch gears and study law.

Conklin left college in the early 1990s and returned to the Magnolia area to work with his brother, Richard, in construction. He was then hired as a cook for the Green Lantern in Hardwick.

“Then, a gentleman from New York bought the Calumet in Pipestone and I was hired there,” Conklin shared. “That was a fun place. People expected more - it was interesting.”

From the Calumet, he cooked at a few different restaurants in Sioux Falls, S.D. before moving to Texas.

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“I went back to school and got my license to do inspections for the state’s Department of Insurance - checking places to see if they were up to code,” he said.

Conklin returned to southwest Minnesota to be near his family four years ago, following the death of a brother. He took a factory job in Sioux Falls, but had dreams of buying a food truck to feed his love for cooking.

Then one day, his mom stopped at the Ellsworth Cafe for lunch and learned it was for sale.

“We looked into it a little bit, and the price was right there where we thought we could make it work,” Conklin said. “Small communities are good. They wanted the cafe open, and I think if we didn’t buy it, it was going to close.”

His older brother Richard, of rural Ellsworth, shared in the investment and is his business partner.

“Richard comes in on Saturday nights and helps me, and he does the maintenance,” Conklin said.

Conklin’s wife, Janelle, also helps out in the cafe when she can. A full-time home health aide who works the overnight shift, Janelle helps promote the cafe on social media, along with working with the waitresses and helping keep the cafe clean.

Spicing up the menu The Ellsworth Cafe boasts a different lunch special each day of the week. On Tuesdays, the special is always hot beef commercial; Wednesday is a pork special and Thursday is a chicken special.

“Friday we change things up - maybe a lasagna,” Conklin said. “I’m trying to get to know the community. They like hotdishes around here and beef casseroles.”

Experiencing life in different parts of the United States - and doing some overseas travel - Conklin said he likes to experiment in the kitchen. Owning a small town cafe, however, he has to be conscious of his consumers’ palates.

“I try to throw a few things in here and there just to see,” said Conklin, noting a pumpkin soup he recently posted as a special of the day. “Some people try it. Others just say, ‘Give me a hamburger.’ They have options - they don’t have to eat the special.”

On the days he offers something a little more adventurous, Conklin said he doesn’t make as much.

“I know people will like the hot beef commercial,” he said.

What they don’t like, he’s learned, is green pepper - and they prefer cottage cheese to ricotta cheese in their lasagna.

“All of our burgers are smoked and we have a full menu with different burgers,” Conklin said. “On the weekends, we try to do something more special. Friday nights we do sirloin and baked potato or a seafood platter, and Saturdays we make pizza. We make the pizza dough from scratch, and we have a little pizza oven.”

Every Friday and Saturday night, the cafe projects a movie onto the wall of what they call the kids room - a place for kids to go and hang out. There’s also a popcorn popper that gets put into action in the evenings.

Conklin said his love for cooking started with his mom.

“Mom always kind of let us help her cook,” he said. “That was kind of fun. She’s a good cook - she’s Italian.

Preparing food, Conklin said, is filled with rewards.

“You get to see what you did right away - and you get to eat it,” he said with a laugh. “There’s so many possibilities. It’s incredible what you can do with food. There’s so many flavors and combinations.”

Though the winter months can be a bit slower for the cafe, Conklin said he’s had amazing support from the community since he opened for business in May 2018.

“Ellsworth has truly been accepting and very helpful,” he said. “I can’t say enough about this town - it’s really, truly a very welcoming community.”

The Ellsworth Cafe is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Conklin hopes to eventually open the cafe on Sunday afternoons as well, and perhaps add a shift on Monday to serve breakfast and lunch.

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Ray Conklin takes a break at the lunch counter at the Ellsworth Cafe. Ray and his brother, Richard, purchased the cafe in May 2018, with Ray doing all of the cooking. (Julie Buntjer / The Globe)

Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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