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Progress: This old Barn - Brainerd restaurant has made it right for 7 decades

For 70 years, the restaurant known as the Barn has persevered in Brainerd, largely by remaining consistent. It's probably pretty close to what people imagine in their minds as they listen to Garrison Keillor talk about the Chatterbox Cafe in his ...

Karen Kinney waits on customers at The Barn. Regular customers and visitors keep the little restaurant filled during the lunch hour. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls)
Karen Kinney waits on customers at The Barn. Regular customers and visitors keep the little restaurant filled during the lunch hour. (Brainerd Dispatch/ Steve Kohls)

For 70 years, the restaurant known as the Barn has persevered in Brainerd, largely by remaining consistent.

It's probably pretty close to what people imagine in their minds as they listen to Garrison Keillor talk about the Chatterbox Cafe in his tales of Lake Wobegon on the radio.

Owner Gary Kinney and his wife Karen took a breather from their work recently to sit down at a picnic table behind the small, cabin-like restaurant to talk about their experience running it.

It's the comforting normalcy that keeps customers coming in and sitting down at the counter, Karen said.

"Nothing's changed, and that's what people like," she said.

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The two met when Karen started working at the restaurant. Now they complement each other, Gary said, pointing out that not a lot of couples can say they like being together almost every moment of every day.

Gary has owned the cafe since 1970. As he was eating supper in it one day some 40 years ago, the prior owner came up to his table and asked the 19-year-old Gary to talk.

"Nineteen years old, didn't think you had enough money to pay for your supper," Karen said.

But he wound up purchasing the entire restaurant. It was the Maid-Rite sandwiches that attracted him to buying, Gary said.

For the uninitiated, a Maid-Rite is a loose-meat sandwich, where the ground beef is cooked in a secret sauce supplied to franchisees by the 90-year-old Maid-Rite Corporation in Iowa. The resulting savory concoction is placed between a bun with mustard, raw onion and pickles.

Initially, Gary limited his activity in the restaurant operation itself to just grilling-his mother baked the pies. But in 1989, she retired after 20 years, and he had to learn the secret of the best key limes and french silks (it's the crust).

And so it went on, for decades more, unchanging as presidents came and went from office.

Gary thought about expanding The Barn once-when an adjacent property was on the market for $10,000. But then he got some advice from his father when he told him of his plan to buy the neighboring building and expand the restaurant.

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"He said, 'But is it broke?'" Gary recalled.

It's not as though there haven't been modernizations, though.

"I think for the most part, we're doing the same thing we were doing 40 years ago," he said. "But the internet has brought our name out there."

For example, 1,200 people like the The Barn on Facebook, and the restaurant is also rated 4.5 stars on Yelp, a crowdsourced rating website. The general consensus is the restaurant is small and diners will likely face a wait, but the food and atmosphere are more than worth it. One of the reviews from a younger-looking patron helpfully notes there is a Pokestop for Pokemon Go players.

A 'family' of faces

Many of the regulars are a bit longer in the tooth than that patron, though. A cadre of older and middle-aged men have a very specific seating order at the counter and jokingly grouse when an out-of-towner unwittingly steals their spot.

One such regular is Bob Crawford, who considers The Barn to be his favorite place except for one thing.

"I wish they would put a (expletive) dishtowel over them pies," he said, as his buddies broke out in laughter. "Because I'm a diabetic. I have to sit here and drool every day."

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"They've somewhat become family," Gary said of his customers. "You know when their birthday is, you know when their kids are coming home. What's really neat is, people I graduated (with) in the '50s, '60s, '70s, are coming home for reunions, and they're bringing their grandkids ... down to The Barn, (saying) 'This is where we had our first date, this is where we used to hang out after high school.'"

People on welfare and millionaires, Republicans and Democrats have come in The Barn for a bite.

"Here, they're just people," Gary said.

He turns 65 this year, prompting anxiety from customers who wonder what will happen to the restaurant if he retires. He'll stay at it as long as his health holds steady, he said.

As to advice for someone who wants to start a small business, Gary's words were simple.

"Be willing to put in the time," he said. "So many of them think they can come in here in six months, and not be here. They're not here, they're gone. But if you're willing to put in the time for the first four to five years ... it takes that long to be successful."

FACTBOX

• 46-the number of years Gary Kinney has owned The Barn.

• 19-the age he was when he bought the restaurant.

• 1,200-the number of "likes" for The Barn on Facebook.

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