- Associated Press - Saturday, December 24, 2016

ST. DONATUS, Iowa (AP) - On the wall of the restaurant that’s been in his family for 160 years, there’s a black-and-white photo of a young Windy Kalmes.

At around the age of six, he’s sitting in a chair by the bar while his dad makes a drink.

“That’s me as a bartender in training,” he said.

To Kalmes, this photo says almost everything there is to say about Kalmes Restaurant.

“It’s a family place and it’s a simple place,” he said.

Back then, nobody thought a tiny tavern in the tiny town of St. Donatus, Iowa, would last.

“Years and years ago, they told my grandpa the bar wouldn’t make it,” Kalmes said. “But here we are now.”

Kalmes, now 83, is still here sitting behind the same bar that he has owned for 60 years.

When you ask him why Kalmes Restaurant has survived for so long - is it the ribeye special or all the word-of-mouth or the scenic drive on Iowa 52 - he doesn’t have a quick answer.

But Kalmes knows one thing for sure: there’s no place he’d rather be sitting after all this time.

The Quad-City Times (https://bit.ly/2hBGxWO ) reports about 135 people live in St. Donatus, Iowa, which is about an hour drive from the Quad-Cities.

There’s no visitors center, city hall or police station; so, if you have a question about directions or the history of the nearby Catholic church, everyone tells you to ask Kalmes.

The restaurant is one of a handful of buildings in town, which Kalmes says was founded in 1848 by an immigrant from Luxembourg.

A few years later - in the 1850s - Kalmes‘ grandfather Peter opened a small tavern.

If you have time, he’ll walk you across the street to what the National Register of Historic Places deemed the oldest barn in Iowa.

“There’s a lot of history in this small area,” he said. “And we’re happy to be part of that.”

Over the years, Kalmes‘ parents took over the business, adding a gas station, living quarters and a grocery store.

Then, in 1956, it was his turn.

He and his wife, Helen, expanded the restaurant, added items to the menu - it now includes burgers, lasagna, roasted chicken, ribeye steak, prime rib, cod, catfish and wiener schnitzel and breaded pork - and created a catering department. They kept the gas pumps and still sell meat, ice cream, candy and soda out of the store area. They have their own branded horseradish and seasonings.

“We added things, but didn’t want to stray from the history,” he said.

Just like Kalmes‘ father, he enlisted help - their four children started working as soon as they were old enough.

Windy Kalmes‘ son, Jim Kalmes, was a teenager when he started busing tables and working the cash register. He has worked at the restaurant full-time since he was 20 and met his wife after she was hired as a waitress.

“A lot of people don’t want to do what their old man did,” Jim, 57, said. “I’ve always liked it here. It’s where I grew up and it’s a friendly place.”

Jim and his siblings, making up the fourth generation, still work alongside their parents most days.

Helen, 77, can be found in the kitchen making whatever the special of the day is along with the typical fare of french fries, burgers and desserts.

“It’s that home-cooked taste that you can’t get anymore,” she said. “We make it the small town way.”

The small town way has paid off.

“Sixty years isn’t too bad,” Windy Kalmes said. “We’re real proud of that.”

Today, Kalmes Restaurant is still the only eatery within the limits of St. Donatus.

When Kalmes opens the doors at 7:30 a.m., there’s often a group of 15-20 people already waiting for their morning coffee.

Regulars drive from Bellevue every day for lunch or an after-work beer and others make a special trip from Des Moines or Cedar Rapids because someone suggested they try the catfish.

“You see a lot of the same faces and then you see new ones every day,” Kalmes said. “I like people and I like good food - I think that’s the reason we’ve made it. When a customer comes in, you’ve got to talk to them.”

That message has trickled down the family line.

“The main thing you got to be is friendly,” his daughter, Jodi Hingtgen, said. “You want to make everyone feel welcome.”

“It’s home cooked food and it tastes the best,” Kalmes‘ grandson, Jim Jr., who heads the catering department, said. “That’s what everyone tells us.”

On a Saturday in the summertime, he’ll have five weddings to cater.

“We’re pretty much the go-to for things like that,” Jim Jr., who started breading chicken at Kalmes when he was 12, said.

Windy and Helen Kalmes still work seven days a week and live above the restaurant.

“There’s always something to do,” Helen said.

They’ve won many awards over the years, including dozens from Dubuque’s BestFest contests. They’ve been honored for hosting an annual fish fry that raises thousands for the Iowa Restaurant Association’s political action committee. And a few years ago, the restaurant was featured on Food Network’s show “Feasting on Asphalt,” hosted by Alton Brown.

But Windy Kalmes says he cares more about talking to a new customer than a fancy award.

When a couple says they drove in from Dubuque on a whim because someone at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium mentioned Kalmes, it still makes him smile.

“We hear that stuff a lot,” he said. “But it never gets old.”


Information from: Quad-City Times, https://www.qctimes.com

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