October 13, 1981
Here’s a story from the Duluth Herald files from 1981, profiling an old-fashioned downtown Duluth cafe and its proprietors. It’s kind of a long article, but it’s a pretty fun, charming story with some memorable anecdotes. Enjoy…
Cafe owners keep their Sunnyside up
By Lynnell Mickelsen, Duluth Herald
At 6:15 a.m. there are four regulars in the cafe, people who drove past McDonald’s, Burger King, Hardee’s, Sambos and the 7-11 to get to this place. The waiter knows their names and their orders. He also knows their fishing stories, hunting stories, idiot boss stories and their political views. The cook knows all of this plus their dietary restrictions. This morning she tells a regular she will boil his eggs instead of fry them because his doctor has repeatedly told him to lose weight. “It will save you 55 calories,” she says.
The Sunnyside Cafe, 214 E. Superior St., has nine stools, four booths, no chrome and no cute names on the menu. It’s open Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Owners Art and Marion Rode are also the waiters, cooks, dishwashers, busboys, buyers and bookkeepers. They have been in the restaurant business for nearly 40 years.
They have, in other words, a 30-year jump on Egg McMuffins, which came out in 1972 and sparked the Great Breakfast War among the fast-food franchises. McDonald’s, Hardee’s, Sambos and the others compete fiercely among themselves for the breakfast crowd. They can deliver the food faster and cheaper than the Rodes, although this suggestion raises a chorus of protest from Sunnyside regulars.
“They can’t give you ham that comes off the hog,” says one.
“They fire the waitresses so often … they don’t know what the hell they’re doing and it takes forever,” says another.
“They don’t even know what hash browns are,” says another.
Even so, the franchises seem to be winning and the Rodes’ nine-stool cafe and other ma and pa operations appear to be a fading phenomenon, dying off by attrition, because no businessman in his right mind would try to start one now.
Marion Rode, a cook with more nearly 40 years of experience, wraps up a sandwich to go at the Sunnyside Cafe in October 1981. Five days a week from this window, she watches the sunrise over Lake Superior. (Joey McLeister / Duluth Herald)
The Rodes, however, don’t think about the future of breakfast cafes. For one thing, they have to get up too early to be philosophical. They arrives at the cafe at 5:15 a.m. in order to have coffee ready and the stove hot for people who, either by neurosis or necessity, east breakfast at 6. They have risen so early for so long that even on weekends, back home in Duluth Heights, they are often up at 5 a.m., drinking coffee.
Getting up early is hardly glamorous, but it has its compensations. The cafe’s back kitchen window looks out over Lake Superior and, over the years, the Rodes have watched one superb sunrise after another.
“We watch it move with the season,” Marion says, cracking two eggs into a cast-iron frying pan. The sunrise moves from the left side of the window across to the right and, for three weeks in December, disappears behind the wall of the Muffler Clinic before emerging and switching directions. They watch the storms brew up over the lake and, in the winter, they say the spray from the surf nearly hits the window.
At 6:30 a.m., a regular, his limbs shortened by dwarfism, swaggers into the cafe. Before the man is two feet inside, Art orders a cheese sandwich to go and Marion is reaching for the bread. Art and the man banter over the counter.
“He’s always giving me grief,” the man says to another customer as Art walks back to the kitchen. “Someday I’m going step on him.”
“What’s that?” Art asks, coming back.
“You’re always giving me grief,” the man repeats happily.
“Bacon and eggs,” Art calls into the kitchen. Another regular has just walked in. Art has been serving breakfast to some people for 20 years, watching them go from scrawny to paunchy. Marion remembers changing the diapers on a man. (“I don’t bring it up because it would embarrass him to tears.”) Regulars need to order only if they are feeling talkative; otherwise, Art can do it automatically.
It’s one of the few automatic processes in the place. Outside of an electric mixer and the cafe’s technological hub, a Bunnomatic coffee maker, this is a restaurant devoid of gizmos and shortcuts. There is no microwave. No pastry steamers. No Cuisanart. No dishwasher. Two years ago they unplugged the Hamilton Beach blender because it was too distracting.
As Art points out, it came down to a matter of priorities: by the time he made someone a milkshake, he could have served three people meatloaf.
“That machine,” Art says, pointing to the forsaken mixer, still sitting on the shelf, “kept us from doing the work we were meant to do.”
The same spirit carries over to the kitchen. “Nothing here is artificial,” Marion declares. In the fall, they bring in apples from the tree in their back yard and make pies.
Marion got her start in the restaurant business in 1942, in a place where the Radisson now stands. It was during the war, the shipyards were busy and they served 1,000 people a day. She made $14 a week and worked with a crew of veteran cooks. “Real old-timers,” she says. “I mean, they were purists. One lady used to save up lard and make the soap herself.”
Marion saved her money, and after the war started a place of her own. Art was one of her customers. “I was hard-boiled then,” she says. “One day I was throwing a drunk out of the place and he landed on Art.”
Art was out of the service, working at the Duluth airport. He had no known aspirations for the restaurant business until the drunk fell on him and he fell for Marion. But he has taken to it well. A smooth breakfast-bartender, he pours coffee with an instinctive, generous hand. A well-informed man, he doesn’t read the newspaper because, by noon, the entire paper has usually been read aloud to him, interspersed with editorial comment and unpublished details. He knew by 6:15 a.m. that Egypt’s Anwar Sadat had been shot.
Art comes back into the kitchen. He and Marion are trying unsuccessfully to remember the last names of veteran customers. The highest price on the menu is $2.95 and people don’t write checks. The only last names they know are for the doctors at the medical center who apparently never had first names.
The Rodes ran a cafe in the 500 block of West Superior Street in downtown Duluth for many years before urban renewal forced them out. This photo was taken in about 1954; Art Rode is behind the counter.
Marion glances up at the wall that separates the kitchen from the dining area. Someone’s waiting to pay the bill,” she says.
Art disappears. The cash register rings.
“You get to be able to feel that kind of stuff in your bones,” Marion says, shaping a meatloaf with her hands. She is a well-fed cook, the kind who “never eats” and must diet subsequently. She reads cookbooks “like novels” but doesn’t use them in the kitchen.
“When I was a girl, I wanted to be a research doctor. I wanted to find the cure for cancer. Never got enough education.” She now tests out various theories of the cause of cancer and finds them wanting. For example, she says she served bacon every morning to an attorney who not only did not succumb to cancer, but lived to 95 and died in his bed.
There are five calendars in the kitchen: odd decoration for a woman supposedly without a sense of time. Marion is vague on the years, vague on her age. Art, on the other hand, is 62, and can tell you the deer season starts in “four weeks and two days.” Every year they close for three weeks during deer season, but, by the third week, they are both restless to come back.
They don’t want to retire, but have heard the building will be sold in two years to make space for access across a planned freeway. “Urban renewal,” Art says, shaking his head. The Rodes have never sold quiche lorraine and their restaurants have never survived urban renewal. Urban renewal, according to Art, forced them out of their old restaurant about 12 years ago.
“We could never start up again today. Never. Too many health regulations,” Marion says. She sweeps her arm across the kitchen, pointing at the wooden shelves and countertops. “Now everything has to be stainless steel. Counters and booths have to be so far off the floor. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. You can’t be too careful. Eat off a low counter and it might kill you.”
– end –
The Sunnyside Cafe closed by the mid-1980s, and a few years later its building was gone. As alluded to in the second-to-last paragraph of the story, it’s now the location of an access point to Lake Place Park, next door to Perry Framing.
Art Rode died in August 2000 at age 80. Marion Rode died in July 2001 at age 89.
Do you remember the Sunnyside Cafe? Share your memories by posting a comment. Direct questions about the Attic to akrueger(at)duluthnews.com.