Small restaurants have a rich history

Contributed photo
Ray Runningen, pictured in the 1960s with his wife Joan and children Mary and John, was among the World War II veterans in Otter Tail County who started mom and pop restaurants in the late 1940s.

By Tom Hintgen

Otter Tail County Correspondent

In mid-January a newspaper column by Vicky Anderson of the Otter Tail County Historical Society caught the attention of many longtime county residents. 

Anderson noted, in the first section of her column, the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Runningen Café in 1947, a prelude to the Viking Café in Fergus Falls.

The café, two years after the end of World War II, was started by veterans Ray, Orris and Gilford Runningen. Andrew, their father, was the man behind the counter at the front of the cafe.

This was an era when mom and pop restaurants started all over Otter Tail County, many of them started by veterans of World War II.

Ray’s son, John, now a resident of Atlanta, Georgia, is among those appreciative of the 75th anniversary salute to the Runningen Cafe.

The family restaurant business started in Ashby.

“That’s where my grandfather, Andrew, had a restaurant on main street, run by his wife and my grandmother Sophie (Borgos) Runningen,” John said. 

 Andrew was a mail carrier who went out in a horse-drawn sleigh to deliver the mail to the area farms. Those farmers and family members then came into town to eat at the Ashby Café in the early 1900s.

The Runningen family moved to Fergus Falls in the late 1920s and bought Elton’s Café from Oscar Elton. They ran that restaurant prior to World War II, with U.S. participation in the war starting in 1941. 

“When my father and uncles joined the military and were part of the war effort, Elton’s Café was sold,” John said.

After the war, Runningen Café in Fergus Falls became a brand-new restaurant.

“Today the Viking Café is still using some of the same equipment formerly used by Runningen Cafe, including the yellow scale in the basement,” John said. 

“My father and uncles served a lot of meat and potatoes that the folks in Fergus Falls seemed to like, and they are still popular menu items today at the Viking Café.”

The Viking Café still has a black and white photo at the back of the restaurant of that opening day of the Runningen Café, 75 years ago, with flowers and all.  

“One partner who I need to also mention,” says John, “is my aunt, Irene Runningen Bjorklund, who was the pastry chef.  She was also a partner in the restaurant.”

Irene, in the words of John, “broke the glass ceiling as a woman owner of the business, just like Rosie the Riveter during World War II.”

John takes pride that all of his grandpa Andrew’s kids participated in Runningen Café.

“Irene would make 20 to 30 pies every day in her home on West Summit Avenue,” he said, “and then bring them down to the restaurant.”

 Fresh rolls and breads along with all of the entrees were prepared at the café.

  The restaurant was sold to the Osterbergs from Alexandria in 1963. They, in turn, sold the café to Lucky Shol in 1967. His children operate the restaurant today.

John’s grandfather, Andrew, was born in 1878 in Ashby and was 69 in 1947 when he became an entrepreneur.

At 87 he went in to Skogmo’s Café to apply for his last job as a cashier.

“All the kids around town knew him as Andy, since they all hung out at Skogmo’s,” John said. “He lived a long life and was 98 when he died in 1976.”