It all started with pie
Kurt Sieve of Alexandria has spent the last 42 years flipping pancakes, clearing tables, hiring servers, ordering food, managing staff and keeping Traveler's Inn bustling year after year, right alongside his brother, Jon.
"The people of Alexandria have been so dear and loyal to us. It's been an amazing career," Kurt said. "We want people reading this article to know it's going to continue to be run as a Sieve restaurant, probably well into the future. Jon will be continuing on and we have some sons who are interested."
But as of 2013, Kurt said he decided it was time to retire from daily operations. "I want my Sundays off after 42 years," he said.
IT ALL STARTED WITH PIE
In 1958, when he was 8-years-old, Sieve said he remembers standing on a stool in his mom's kitchen, stirring up eggs, sugar and pecans and pouring it all into a pie shell for his mom to put in the oven.
"My mother, Helen, contracted with a local cafe in Long Prairie to make pies. The name of the place was Herb and Hazel's. Each day in our little farm kitchen, she would throw together a dozen pies - sour cream raisin, pecan, pumpkin, apple, rhubarb - the same pies we make today," Sieve said. "Then, Herb would show up on the farm with his pie box and he'd put the pies in the box and hand her $7.20 for her efforts; 60 cents a pie."
Everyone told Mrs. Sieve she was onto something and she should open her own cafe. The family did. The Sieves ran The Grill Cafe in Long Prairie for about seven years.
"Many mornings before school, we'd be down there in the basement under a 60-watt light bulb on a string, peeling five-gallon pails of potatoes so they could mash them up for the day," Sieve recalled. "It was a job we had to do before we went to school. I remember going to school with starch rings around my hand."
Then, a sales representative from Henry's Foods encouraged the Sieves to look into a cafe in Alexandria that had recently been put up for sale. Kurt said his father protested the idea, but his mom said, "We're doing it," and they did. Back in 1967, the Sieves bought the cafe that is now Traveler's Inn.
A few years later, Sieve said his parents were considering selling the cafe.
"My mother's health was failing because they were working too hard, seven days a week, and my dad said, 'We can't do it; it's too big, we're too busy.' But I told them, 'Don't do that. I'm coming out of college, maybe I want to run a business.'
"I came back [to Alexandria] and I started working with my dad in the kitchen. My brother, Jon, returned from Vietnam a year later, in the spring of 1972, and my dad said, 'Why don't you guys run the restaurant?' We worked hard and gave them money to lease it for five years and, in the fall of 1977, Jon and I signed an agreement for purchase."
The brothers spent 10 years in the kitchen working side by side. Besides ordering food and paying bills, they cooked. In 1979, their brother Michael joined the family business and they bought Marie's Cafe in Long Prairie. He ran that location as Michael's until 2006.
Back in 1982, the Sieves heard the White House Cafe at the mall was for sale and they bought that one too. They named it The Brass Lantern and Mike and Jon still own it.
"After the second restaurant and the third, the [aprons] had to come off; there was so much administration to do. So we started filling in with really good people. From then on, we became owners and managers of our restaurants," Sieve said.
"Just like on the farm, we all worked hard."
CAREER OF GROWTH
When his parents owned the place, Traveler's Inn was a 120-seat cafe. In 1985, Traveler's Inn expanded to 156 seats. Today, the downtown restaurant seats 200. "We took that little, small-town cafe and turned it into a 200-seat restaurant," Sieve said proudly. "The recipes we use are 50 years old and we do most things homemade here. Our famous caramel and cinnamon rolls are made from scratch. Our pancakes, we make the batter and the syrup and we make our own french dressing, too. That's very popular."
Looking back, Sieve said he attributes Traveler's Inn's success to quality food, service and atmosphere. "We'll bend over backwards to make sure you're always happy here. If you're coming in to spend your hard-earned money at my restaurant, you're going to get a good experience. If it isn't just right, we'll make it right. I think we've provided a good product at a good price with good service and a friendly atmosphere. [Alexandria] has treated us well and we're grateful to our loyal customers. So much of our success is also due to our loyal and dedicated staff who have made this [place] what it is today. I can't thank them enough.
"We know lots of our customers on a first name basis. These are the people I will miss. That's the part of retirement I was really concerned about. I'm going to miss the social part of Traveler's; the working part not so much," he laughed.
"I can't believe my career is at that point," Sieve said. "I'm at that point where I don't want to work anymore and I'm enjoying it, but it's a very strange feeling not to have a purpose. I don't want it to be that way so I'll find a purpose and part of that will still be at Traveler's, filling in as needed."
In the meantime, you'll find Sieve traveling, playing more golf, and available on weekends to play more golf. "Every-other-weekend was on my job description for a long, long time," he said. "Now, I'm just enjoying my free time."
Sieve and his wife, Jeanne, have four sons, Nathan, Adam, Andrew and Jacob.