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Everyone's special at 'Ideal' spot

03/09/2016, 3:30pm CST
By Sam Wigness

Bolted above a 60-year-old coffee urn in the Ideal Diner is a sign that reads “Where regular people feel special and special people feel regular.” Owner Kim Robinson not only popularized this slogan – which appeared with the diner in 1949 – she applies it to the hundreds of customers she serves each week.

Robinson began working at Ideal Diner as a teenager and has seen thousands of customers fill its 14 stools. A few faces have stood out, such as “Purple People Eater Guy” (former Vikings player Carl Eller) and “Channel 4 Guy” (WCCO anchor Reg Chapman), but it’s the faces she sees on a regular basis that keep her and the diner going.

Through the decades, Robinson and the Ideal Diner have embedded themselves in the working-class culture of northeast Minneapolis through acts of goodwill and kindness.


Sport Ngin senior web designer and “Working Man Breakfast” lover Frank Denney and Ideal Diner owner Kim Robinson.

Robinson worked alongside her mother, Donna Stevens, who cooked for 40 years at the diner, for most of her life before they both left in 2008. Soon after, the diner closed and Robinson was competing with four other buyers to purchase and reopen it. In 2013, Robinson returned to the restaurant industry as a first-time business owner.
 
“Everything was just in the right spot for me to purchase it, and I needed a job, so I basically had to buy me a job,” Robinson said. “I knew nothing about owning the place except how to order food, which I used to do with my mom. But payroll, taxes, sales tax – there was just a lot of stuff I didn’t know about.”
 
While she learned the business operations side on the fly, Robinson resumed her duties as a prep cook and waitress. Although she swore as a teenager that if she could have her way the diner would serve frozen soups and hash browns to avoid the prep work, Robinson still boils and peels 50 pounds of potatoes each day and shreds the 50 pounds from the day before. She then prepares the daily specials and soups while serving the early-bird customers. From 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., her 85-year-old mother – who still would love to go back to work – comes in to chat and have coffee.

I’ve caught her back behind the counter twice. She’ll pick up the spatula, and I have to say ‘Mama!’ to back her down."
Ideal Diner owner Kim Robinson on attempts by her 85-year-old mother, Donna Stevens, to come out of retirement and resume working at the northeast Minneapolis landmark

“I’ve caught her back behind the counter twice," Robinson said about her mother. "She’ll pick up the spatula, and I have to say ‘Mama!’ to back her down.”
 
While the first few months of ownership were chaotic, Robinson claims she’s learned to organize her workload and even allows herself to take Sundays off now.
 
She completed the task of refurbishing a restaurant made entirely of machines and materials from the 1940’s and bringing her business up to health code. While other prospective buyers would have gutted the diner and replaced its vintage equipment, Robinson wouldn’t allow it.
 
“Everything is original and in the same place it was in 1949,” she said. “I wash it every day. When I bought it, it was in pretty bad shape – the tile, the counter. I cleaned it all back up like new. I wanted everything to stay the same, it wasn’t about the expense.”


Facts

Name: Ideal Diner  |  Owner: Kim Robinson

Year founded: Originally opened in 1949. Closed briefly in 2013 before it was purchased and reopened by Robinson, the diner's third owner in 67 years.

Location: 1314 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis

Website: www.idealdiner.com

Hours: Monday-Thursday, Saturday 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Phone: 612.789.7630  |  Entree range: $4-9.50 

Favorites: Working Man (two eggs, hash browns, choice of ham, bacon or sausage, toast and jelly), $8.50; Porker (fresh, secret-battered pork tenderloin served on choice of toast, with chips or fries) $7.95

Notable customers: Former Minnesota Viking Carl Eller and WCCO's Reg Chapman

 


The diner itself tells a story. Under one of the napkin dispensers is a hole from when somebody broke in by throwing a rock through the window. Another window has bars due to another break-in attempt. The radio only played WCCO for over 40 years. The floor is marked in the corner from where the old pinball machine used to be – everything is marked in some way.
 
The best stories, however, are told by a committee of Robinson, waitress Colleen Rheh and the trickle of regulars who permanently inhabit the lunch counter.
 
One their favorites happened during a busy lunch rush when a customer tripped over his pants and crashed into the glass door.
 
“There’s about four fire trucks outside, counter is full and 14 ‘doctors’ in here telling us what to do. The guy’s laying on the floor, the door’s busted and there’s a piece of glass laying next to him,” Robinson said. “So anyhow, there’s four firetrucks and an ambulance outside and it’s our noon-hour rush – it’s packed in here – and I’m not kidding you, there’s people stepping over this body to come in here and eat lunch.”
 
The man was loaded into an ambulance, which crashed en route to North Memorial Clinic.
 
Another man’s false teeth came flying across the counter as he had a stroke. Luckily, the two guys next to him caught him before he tumbled to the floor while Robinson called 911.

I used to have old timers that would come clean the gutters and sweep up the cigarette butts.”

                                                                         Ideal Diner owner Kim Robinson

Rheh claims that kind of thing happens only on Robinson’s shift, but she chimes in with details while Robinson tells the stories.
 
There’s also been a slew of break-ins and dine-and-dashers, and although Robinson’s mother used to chase them down, Kim believes that if they’re that desperate to eat and run she should just let them be.
 
The diner’s golden years, in Robinson’s eyes, were when she first started working there. The regulars back then told stories of an “Ol’ Nordeast” with horses clomping along on dirt roads. With a metallurgy and foundry nearby, the 24-hour Ideal Diner was a popular spot for blue-collar workers, many of whom offered to help out however they could.
 
“I used to have old timers that would come clean the gutters and sweep up the cigarette butts,” Robinson said. “That’s just how things were. They were always asking if we needed stuff done like carrying sacks of flour, fix the door – anything. People were just different back then.”
 
In 2013, when the Ideal Diner hit hard times because of road construction on Central Avenue, assistance from a new source helped Robinson out of a jam. Sport Ngin CEO Justin Kaufenberg wandered the half-block from his company's headquarters into the diner and, like many others, found himself chatting with Robinson and offering to help her business any way he could.


Sport Ngin co-founder and CEO Justin Kaufenberg, left, and Ideal Diner owner Kim Robinson.

“I thought he was just another bullshitter at first,” Robinson said with her signature chuckle. “He handed me his card and I put it in my apron, and it wasn’t until I got home that I looked at the card and thought ‘Holy ..., he’s the CEO of this company. Maybe he was serious.’ ”
 
Kaufenberg vividly remembers the visit, partly because of his conversation with Kim, but also because it was the first time he met her mother, who was griping about how Kim had “ruined” her 50-year-old pancake recipe. He claims walking into the diner is good for the soul and loves overhearing the conversations it holds.
 
He could tell Robinson was skeptical about him, and said he would have viewed himself the way Robinson did if he didn’t follow through on his offer.
 
“I have such a huge amount of respect for Kim and any local merchant,” he said. “That’s a hard business, you rely on the traffic down Central Avenue. To have the funnel taken away after working so hard for so long to keep this awesome little local place open didn’t seem fair.”
 
Kaufenberg was reminded of the early days of Sport Ngin, when he would pray customers to call and give him a chance. So, in a long, late-night email to the entire Sport Ngin staff, he expressed how he felt about Robinson’s struggles and encouraged his co-workers to eat at the diner.
 
The response was immediate as several employees got breakfast at the Ideal Diner the next day. Senior Web Designer Frank Denney (known as Frankie in the diner) started eating at the diner more than once a week, and after getting to know Robinson, offered to re-design her website pro bono. Initially, Robinson had him pegged as a bullshitter, like she did with Kaufenberg, but agreed to the request.
 
“I brought the idea to Justin after his call to action and it was an immediate 'yes,' ” Denney said. “Absolutely we should do this. No stipulations, no restrictions.”


The Ideal Diner's new website launched last summer.

Over the next three months, Denney and a team of designers, including Robin Marquardt and Ben Sweeney, spent nights and weekends building the new website. They noticed that Ideal Diner was already well received on social media and decided the website simply needed to reflect Robinson’s warmth and openness.
 
“She doesn’t need to worry about new social media – not that she does anyway,” Denney said. “The public will tell her story for her as long as she kept up the personal customer service. With her, it was easier to let everyone tell the story for her.”
 
The website launched soon after the road construction ended. Robinson was back in business with a new website and group of regulars from Sport Ngin. Soon after, she visited the Sport Ngin office to give a thank you speech. Afterward, she passed out marbles – each good for a free Breakfast Buddy – to each of the 250 employees.
 
In her speech, she expressed her gratitude to Kaufenberg, Frankie and the web designers and said their help was, “Proof of good neighbors – just like the old times used to be.”

 

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