DURHAM—Starting a new restaurant in the best of times is a challenge. In the midst of a global pandemic, it is a major undertaking. However, Mark Wiebe and his wife, Kris, endeavored to do just that, and Main Street Cafe celebrated its one-year anniversary last month.
The couple decided it was time to open their own restaurant after 17 years of working the farmer’s market circuit, selling primarily baked goods from Abilene to Manhattan to Junction City. Kris said the couple was working a market four days per week.
“We decided to shift gears,” Mark said.
“We wanted the customers to come to us,” Kris said.
Kris was encouraged to open the business by members of the Durham community and members of her congregation. Mark, a life-long resident, said the business is family-owned but employs half-a-dozen locals.
With only two months in business before having to adapt to COVID, they do not have a baseline for “normal” business.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” she said.
Mark said the pandemic struck Durham in early April, forcing the business to carry-out only.
“It was just my wife and I running it by ourselves. We did a bunch of sitting around between customers,” Mark said.
The couple opened Main Street Cafe seven months after it had been closed and sold in July of 2019. Mark said the building had been devastated by a flood, the water height marked in permanent marker on the doorframe nearly four feet off the floor.
Kris added there had been a cafe in their location since the 1920s, until the 2019 flood when the owner decided to retire rather than renovate the building.
“Everything from the four-foot mark, all the sheetrock was off. We had to start over, putting new up, replacing most of the cooking equipment, repainting; it got a complete facelift,” Mark said.
Mark added the couple received a lot of volunteer help and support from the community and church.
Looking at the damage, the Wiebes worked to preserve some pieces of the building’s history. The couple still uses the original icebox installed by the butchery, which used to be next door. Retrofitted with modern refrigeration units, the inside is still wood, and all the original hardware and glass remains intact.
Area history is not only preserved in the building but also the food. Kris said all the homemade pies use Mark’s grandmother’s crust recipe. Mark added the business still makes its own sausage, using the previous owner’s blend of spices.
The cafe offers a full menu of American diner staples from burgers made with locally-sourced beef to chicken strips and salad to a full breakfast meal of french toast, pancakes smothered in homemade syrup and homemade bread, biscuits and gravy.
Mark said adjusting to running a full restaurant grill was “a tremendous learning curve for me.”
While he was experienced running the grill for family gatherings, “when I’m in front of the grill and orders are coming in, coordinating and managing the work at the grill has been the biggest learning experience,” he said.
Kris, who made pies and baked goods for farmers markets, found herself managing the kitchen and serving staff in addition to cooking.
“It used to be the only one I had to boss around was him, and he didn’t get paid,” she joked, Mark quipped, “Now, she doesn’t have to wash as many dishes.”
The couple said they share a lot of the responsibilities of running the business, but each have specialties—Mark on the grill and smoker and Kris making bakery items.
“Most of our employees do a lot of things, too. We don’t have one person doing one thing,” Mark said.
Through the last year, the Wiebes said they have been determined to keep their small business afloat.
“We’re not fast food. But appreciation comes from people when they walk through the door,” Mark said.
“That’s even more so with the pandemic. I’ve told him, I’m thankful for every person that walked through those doors, especially when it was carry-out,” Kris said.
With the pandemic waning, the couple hope to slowly expand their cafe business but are grateful for the community of Durham for making their business an unlikely success.