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The small-town cafe that can: Business booming thanks to Twitter and pie

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Posted at 4:54 PM, Oct 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-30 17:54:36-04

NEWMAN GROVE, Neb. — Retired social studies teacher Laura Nelson is used to seeing her small town send its children, and its dollars, off to bigger cities.

“We tend to go that way,” to Lincoln and the Omaha metro, where her nieces and many former students live and shop.

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Owner Dawn Witchell, right, makes a peanut butter pie in her cafe’s kitchen. To the left is waitress Morgann Johnson. Johnson is a senior at Newman Grove High School. The City Cafe is a staple of Newman Grove, Nebraska’s downtown business district. The cafe is seen here on Saturday, August 28, 2021, in Newman Grove, Nebraska.

But lately, from her seat at the cafe table where she meets friends most mornings for coffee and an omelet, she’s witnessed a reversal of fortune. City folks are spending their money in her hometown.

“The cafe has managed to bring them up here,” she said.

Business is booming for the Newman Grove City Cafe and spilling over to its neighbors, thanks to loyal locals but also a growing urban following. A social network of Eastern Nebraska foodies have turned the out-of-the-way cafe into a destination, even though it’s a two-hour drive from Lincoln or Omaha and too remote to spot on Google Street View.

Newman Grove, a 700-person town that straddles the Madison County and Platte County line, doesn’t have an obvious platform for economic development and tourism. It isn’t the hometown of a famous author; there’s no National Scenic River running by, no towering rock landmark on the horizon. But it is the adopted home of Dawn and Adam Witchell. They’re native Omahans who have unexpectedly turned the town’s main drag, Hale Avenue, into a two-way street for commerce.

In 2020, when many restaurants closed, the City Cafe posted record sales with 30% growth over the year before. It’s going to bust that sales record again this year.

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From left: Sam Torres, his son, Sammy, 3, his wife Nicole Torres, and his son, Jeremiah, 1, order lunch from waitress Morgann Johnson at the City Cafe. The City Cafe is a staple of Newman Grove, Nebraska’s downtown business district. The cafe is seen here on Saturday, August 28, 2021, in Newman Grove, Nebraska.

The Witchells attract carloads of out-of-towners, boost business by selling pies in Omaha and beyond and share the wealth by sending their customers up and down the street to explore neighboring retailers.

Their success is a testament to the reach of social media, the romance of the road trip and the fact that cooperation — and a sweet slice of lemon meringue — can bridge Nebraska’s growing rural-urban divide.

So on the same Friday that Nelson met her regular 8 a.m. coffee group at the cafe for “therapy” — conversing on family doings and home canning tips — David and Megan Holtorf drove northwest 120 miles from Omaha for lunch.

David, a financial advisor, and Megan, a commercial banker, met up with David’s college friend, a commodities broker who lives 24 miles away in Columbus. It was a first-time “trek” they’d been meaning to make since Megan heard about the cafe on Twitter.

“I just liked the story,” she said. “I’m from a really small town. I want to see places like this succeed.”

Still, a four-hour round trip for lunch? In a time when you can work from anywhere, you can take a lunch break anywhere too.

David took a work call on the way up, and Megan admired the scenery: horses, swishing their tails in the shadow of a sagging barn; the flash of a meadowlark’s yellow breast streaking past the windshield; endless acres of corn bending in the breeze.

After lunch they lingered at their corner table as the packed dining room emptied out, the cowbell on the door jingling each time it opened. Their burger baskets were empty, but the City Cafe experience wasn’t over. The Holtorfs took some treats to go: a clamshell of gooey cinnamon rolls and a stack of generously sliced scotcheroos. Their friend, David Franzen, vowed to return; his office is nearby in Humphrey, and he wants to start picking up lunch for the team.

“You can’t find this anymore,” Franzen said. “Every town has a Casey’s, and once you get a Casey’s, you lose a cafe.”

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Owner Adam Witchell gazes out of the City Cafe’s front windows during a slow Saturday morning. The City Cafe is a staple of Newman Grove, Nebraska’s downtown business district. The cafe is seen here on Saturday, August 28, 2021, in Newman Grove, Nebraska.

To get here, the Witchells swam upstream in Nebraska’s urban migration.

In 2014 they resigned their positions at Boys Town, pulled their daughter from Millard Public Schools, and spent $35,000 to buy the cafe from its longtime owner.

Privately, they gave it three years to succeed or fail.

Seven years and a second daughter later, they work side by side on a busy Friday, and sometimes back to back, in the tight space between the grill and the prep counter, while the waitress takes phone orders and hustles out baskets of fried cheese balls.

Adam mans the grill, flipping an egg over-easy and draping two slices of bacon over a burger. Dawn squeezes sriracha mayo on a toasted bun, and wraps the whole thing in checkered deli paper.

While they work, Dawn whistles, sings or talks to a waiting customer: “Hi Aaron! How are you today?”

He waits while she grabs some pickles with tongs, arranges them on a bun, snaps a foam container closed and sketches a cartoon burger on the lid with a Sharpie. “You didn’t want to get back to work, didja?”

Aaron Sauser is a parts manager at Lindsay Corp., the irrigation equipment maker seven miles southeast in Lindsay. He’s grabbing lunch for himself and four coworkers.

“It’s desperately needed,” he said of the cafe. “We’ve got nothing at Lindsay anymore.”

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Waitress Morgann Johnson, who is a senior at Newman Grove High School, takes an order over the phone. The City Cafe is a staple of Newman Grove, Nebraska’s downtown business district. The cafe is seen here on Saturday, August 28, 2021, in Newman Grove, Nebraska.

When the midday rush is over, Dawn closes out the register and walks a block to the bank. Adam takes out the trash, hangs up his apron and grabs the keys for his afternoon school bus route. The school principal convinced him to help out “temporarily” — six years ago. He also serves as a volunteer firefighter, while Dawn volunteers with the PTO, her church council and the community club.

Looking back on their seven years in business, the Witchells see three steps to success — even if their roadmap wasn’t clear from Day One.

First, focus on the locals. They’re the ones who’ve kept the wood-paneled dining room full for decades, who gave the Witchells the benefit of the doubt when they moved here. They’re the reason the new owners held back on a total menu makeover — adding trendy poutine and sriracha burgers, sure, but also keeping pork tenderloin sandwiches.

Second, invite outsiders in. Adam, helming the cafe’s Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts, has his thumbs on Eastern Nebraska’s digital pulse. He harnesses the no-boundaries power of social media to make real-life friends through friendly banter and colorful images of Dawn’s daily menu boards.

This network accelerated sales during the pandemic, when vacations were out, supporting local restaurants was in and social life moved online.

At first, income plummeted when the state’s COVID-19 response closed the cafe dining room. The Witchells switched to takeout, selling food from the cafe’s front window.

It wasn’t long before the takeout was taken way out of town.

Twitter regular Jen Bauer, who’d been to the cafe just once, needed to escape her Elmwood Park neighborhood.

“I was bored, just bored, out of my mind,” Bauer said. And she figured she wasn’t the only one who could use a slice of pie. “Their food is so good, but their pie is excellent.”

Maybe she could bring a couple back to Omaha?

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Owner Adam Witchell plates a lunch order in the City Cafe’s kitchen. The City Cafe is a staple of Newman Grove, Nebraska’s downtown business district. The cafe is seen here on Saturday, August 28, 2021, in Newman Grove, Nebraska.

Her whim became a plan. Adam promoted; Dawn baked. Soon Bauer had 48 pies in the back of her station wagon, headed for a west Omaha Target parking lot where she passed them out to people she knew only from Twitter, partners in pie.

“I was going to get pies for friends, and ended up having 50-some friends,” she said.

The Omaha Pie Run was born, generating more customers and kicking off further partnerships, urban and rural, that boosted cafe business to the next level.

Former Husker center Matt Vrzal has family in Newman Grove. He got wind of the pie parade and now sells City Cafe pies at his West Omaha pizza place Piezon’s. Today, about half of the more than 40 pies the cafe sells in a typical week are sold in Omaha, adding thousands of dollars in extra sales each year. Omaha Beer Week was sweeter this year with a beer-and-pie pairing event with La Vista brewery Kros Strain. The brew makes an appearance in Newman Grove, in the cafe’s beer-cheese soup.

In an age of division, “We slowly made connections with people across the state, in Omaha, just tagging each other, or supporting small businesses,” Adam said.

In their final secret to success, the Witchells haven’t hoarded it. They spread the wealth in rural Nebraska, generating business for others in a virtuous cycle of commerce.

Their pie is now for sale at a coffee shop 15 miles west in Albion, a town twice the size of Newman Grove. They boost small-town businesses on social media, retweeting The Mixing Bowl in Gering, the Wahoo Bakery, Susan’s Books & Gifts in Aurora.

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The business, Sixth & Hale, is owned by Bonnie Gerloff, seen here. Gerloff sells home decor in the downtown business district of Newman Grove, Nebraska. The business is seen here on Saturday, August 28, 2021, in Newman Grove, Nebraska.

And locally, the Witchells refer their customers to Sixth & Hale, Newman Grove native Bonnie Gerloff’s new boutique across the street. She in turn refers customers to B&M Antiques and Architectural Salvage, a multi-warehouse picker’s paradise where she buys her own store fixtures.

The system works in reverse, too, she said, remembering the day a Lincoln customer came to town to browse B&M, which sent them to Bonnie, who sent them to the cafe. “I was so proud.”

“The town realizes we have to work together or it isn't going to work,” said Tom Temme, owner of the Shell Creek Market grocery, a few doors west of the boutique.

Today that philosophy extends well past city limits.

Generations ago, towns like Newman Grove were self-sufficient, said Patrick Gerhart, fifth-generation president of the Bank of Newman Grove. Now, they need each other.

Newman Grove is thriving agriculturally and on Main Street, he says. But it can’t grow without a bigger workforce, including immigrants, more local kids moving home, like Gerhart did, and more people like the Witchells moving in.

Gerhart wonders: Will there be opportunities for my kids when they graduate?

“The question is the longevity of it.”

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The City Cafe is a staple of Newman Grove, Nebraska’s downtown business district. The cafe is seen here on Saturday, August 28, 2021, in Newman Grove, Nebraska.

Dawn wonders about that on a personal level, how to find work-life balance, when her kids eat dinner too many nights at the cafe, when she works into the night rolling pie crusts. When the Witchells had to close their dining room so they could take a family vacation.

“We are on a treadmill and the speed keeps increasing, and like, I need to tie my shoe,” she said.

Any solution will involve leaning on others, those people who walk in the cafe door from down the street and from five counties away.COVID-19 and the small-town cafe remind us: We still crave connection.

And pie.

“The place is so small you can’t help but connect with people,” Dawn said. “You're in the dining room and we’re in the kitchen, and we’re talking to you.”

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