- Associated Press - Monday, October 3, 2016

MINOT, N.D. (AP) - With ponytail bobbing, Tiffany Lee zipped from table to table at Charlie’s Main Street Cafe to pass out meals and friendly conversation.

Minot Daily News reported (https://bit.ly/2d7Cwpn ) Lee, who owns the restaurant with her parents, is a self-proclaimed “foodie” on a mission to make her customers and their palates happy. She can’t imagine anything better than working in an environment where there’s both food and family and, in her mind, staff and customers are just like family.

“I am surrounded by things I love,” she said.

She also sees Charlie’s playing an important role in the community as a locally owned restaurant offering classic, home-styled food and serving as a Main Street fixture with a decades-long history. In 1953 when President Dwight Eisenhower came to see the Garrison Dam project, Charlie DeMakis, a Greek immigrant and then owner of Charlie’s, prepared his meals.

A pride in local tradition might not be what people expect from a young woman who has lived in various places around the world and has only been in Minot since 2014. But Lee isn’t necessarily typical and neither is Charlie’s.

“We celebrate the fact that we are part of the community. We are not just a restaurant. We are a place where people can feel loved and appreciated,” Lee said. “Someone actually told me, ‘It’s not just the good food I come here for. It’s the atmosphere.’”

That sense of being part of the community is why Lee involved Charlie’s in DaySun’s Day of Giving a year ago. Lee planned the food and Charlie’s donated and served hot dogs.

Lee’s parents, Simon and Hennah Lee, came from South Korea to buy into Charlie’s with other family members in 2012. It was quite a leap, prompted by family in the states who had heard about Minot’s economic activity.

Lee spent her first nine years in Korea, moving to Germany when her father’s job in banking took them there. They later moved to England.

Lee and her sister lived with an aunt in Alaska while attending high school. To eliminate her British accent and better assimilate, she practiced her speech by watching and mimicking announcers on CNN. She joked she ended up with an accent that was a cross of British, Korean and East Coast. She also gained her first experience working in the food industry as a teenager.

Lee studied international security conflict resolution at a San Diego university. She learned about food security and worked for an urban farming operation in helping immigrants many of them Somali and Mung who wanted to grow food crops from their native lands.

“I was always interested in the food industry. I always loved going to breakfast diners with my sister,” she said. She recalled how they used to talk about owning a diner someday.

Instead, she moved to Portland, Oregon, to work as a program coordinator for a nonprofit and later for the City of Portland, helping low-income families find housing.

The time eventually came when Lee realized that her work in Portland wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life. What she wanted was to join her family and go into the food business. She also discovered, in some ways, running a restaurant is similar to working for a nonprofit.

“I have to wear a lot of hats. I have to be quick on my feet,” she said. “I get to really help people.”

Her father brings a financial background to the restaurant but he also developed culinary skills that he employs in the kitchen. Her mother has experience in operating a restaurant in Korea and does the restaurant baking.

Lee admits cooking is not the expertise she brings to the restaurant. Rather, she says, “I appreciate food.”

What Lee brings to Charlie’s is youthful energy, customer service and marketing savvy. She shows up at 6 a.m. and goes steady until 2 to 3 p.m. Her record is 7.5 miles on her Fitbit in a single day’s work. Even when Charlie’s closes in late afternoon, Lee doesn’t stop thinking about the restaurant.

“I manage pretty much everything at Charlie’s,” she said. The restaurant reflects her artistic bent in its decorations and the background musical tracks that play a range of popular classics, from the Beatles to Crosby, Stills and Nash. She had a hand in the decorating even before becoming part-owner, helping select the framed historical photographs that line the walls and give the place its Minot flavor.

Lee designs the T-shirts that the staff wears as uniforms and that customers can buy.

She spent her Jul. 4 holiday designing a website for Charlie’s. She built up Charlie’s presence on Facebook and has seen the restaurant start to draw a younger clientele and more diners from outside the Minot area. She’s used that avenue heavily this summer to get the word out that Charlie’s remains open and accessible despite the construction that tore up the street and sidewalk in front of the restaurant for several weeks.

When Lee and her father saw construction workers sitting on site eating pizza, they decided to hand out menus. When Lee realized the workers didn’t have time to come in and order, she went to them to take their orders and deliver their meals.

“I wanted them to feel like they are part of the community, too,” she said. “It’s been actually a really incredible experience.”

The work crews presented her with a construction vest to wear on site and white hard hat on which she had them write their names.

Earlier this summer, Charlie’s was listed as No. 1 on a list of North Dakota’s top five brunch restaurants at onlyinyourstate.com. To celebrate, the Lees created a sausage and hash browns creation as their signature brunch burger. It is one of five specialty burgers added to a menu that they’ve kept largely the same since taking over Charlie’s.

At Charlie’s, regular customers who establish a favorite way they like their ice cream or burgers could end up having their preference turned into a menu special, possibly even named after them. Lee also highlights selected customers by taking their photos in Charlie’s T-shirts to feature on the cafe’s entrance bulletin board.

Lee’s dream is for Charlie’s to be visited by Food Networks’ “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” In the meantime, she has a vision to someday work with local farmers to source vegetables for the restaurant. She imagines more gourmet-style items on the menu. Most importantly, though, she intends to look for ways to involve Charlie’s in volunteer activities to become even more a part of the community.

“I want to be known as a local business that gives back to the community,” she said. “I want to give back as much as they have given to us.”

Customers who like the Charlie’s atmosphere shouldn’t worry about too much change, though.

“I do definitely want to keep the atmosphere of family-friendly, welcoming where they think of Charlie’s as home,” Lee said.


Information from: Minot Daily News, https://www.minotdailynews.com

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