Savoring the Memories: Van’s Café Served Up Comfort Food for Six Decades

Auburn—There’s basic, small-town café food, and then there’s home-cooked café food that’s so good people come back for generations. That’s how it was at Van’s Café in Auburn.

While everyone seemed to have their favorite breakfast and lunch items at Van’s Café, the Smothered Hash Browns were always a best seller. Topped with sausage, onions, green peppers, mushrooms and cheese (along with two fried eggs on top, if desired), this perennially popular dish sold out during the last weekend in March before Van’s Café closed permanently after 61 years.

Some guests came for the first time to try classics like the Smothered Hash Browns, while long-time customers took the opportunity to joke with Richard Vanderheiden, owner. “Hey, Richard,” said one of the old timers when Vanderheiden stepped out of the kitchen. “I thought sure after all these years you’d learn how to cook before you quit!”

Vanderheiden takes it all in stride, just as he has for decades. The story of Van’s Café began in January 1954, when his parents, George and Rose Vanderheiden, moved their eight children (including Dorothy, Donald, Larry, Karen, Richard, Michael, Patrick and Mary) from Carroll to Auburn. They opened the Maidrite Café, which was located one lot over from where Van’s Café sits today on the west side of Highway 71.

The whole family pitched in waiting tables, washing dishes, taking out the trash and handling all the other duties required to run a restaurant. Those were the days when menu items like potato soup cost 30 cents, tuna salad was 35 cents and roast beef cost $1.15.

Vanderheiden was especially interested in the family business. “I started working there at age 10,” said Vanderheiden, 70, who enjoyed growing up in Auburn and remembers when the town boasted three grocery stores, a creamery, a hatchery, a drug store, two filling stations, a bank and a hardware store. “My mother was a very good cook, and I learned a lot from her.”
People could count on Van’s
In the spring of 1967, Vanderheiden came back from school to help his mother run the restaurant after his father became ill. After his father passed away, Vanderheiden took over the family business in 1972 and bought the building (which dates to 1893) where Van’s Café would be located for the next 43 years.

He operated Van’s Café each Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 1:30 or 2 p.m. and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. “People knew they could count on Van’s being open,” said Vanderheiden, who served breakfast whenever the café was open.

Lorene Knobbe, who grew up in the area and now lives in Davenport, recalled eating at Van’s many times. She was sad to hear the café was closing for good. “My mom and dad loved that place and liked to go there on Sundays after church,” she said.

Other customers began reminiscing about the unforgettable meals they enjoyed atthis iconic, small-town café. Kurt McCaulley, a Lake City native who now lives in DeWitt, recalled how he and Larry McCaulley, Lynn Dial, Mike Carisch, Gregg Gass, Ronnie McCaulley and other guys who baled hay for Marj Richardson looked forward to lunch at Van’s Café. “We used to eat the hot-beef sandwiches for lunch, and lots of times we’d have two helpings.”

The café was also special to Luanne Redenius of Lake City, a former waitress who still recalls her first $5 tip. “My first job with a real paycheck was waitressing at Van’s during the early morning shift,” said Redenius, who was 17 at the time and had just graduated from Lake City High School in 1974. “Richard was a hard worker and kind man who always took time to answer my questions, no matter how busy things got—and it seemed like we were always busy.”
It’s not Auburn without Van’s Café
Through the years, Van’s Café has became known for a variety of comfort foods, including the signature Van’s Potato Soup (created by Rose Vanderheiden), meatloaf, goulash and famous 3-bean salad, which is often the most popular salad bar item.

While Vanderheiden kept a low profile most of the time, he always said “yes” when people walked in the door of his restaurant and asked, “Is this the famous Van’s Café?” He knew they probably heard the 1040 WHO Radio morning show when broadcaster Van Harden came to Auburn a few years ago to help Vanderheiden celebrate 40 years in business.

“That was a super day,” said Vanderheiden, who noted that nearly 600 customers showed up to be part of the unique event and enjoy a free breakfast.

Customers became more like friends at Van’s Café, which also became a part of many local family’s mealtime traditions. Jim Daisy of Lake City began bringing his son to Van’s Café for breakfast on Saturday mornings starting in the early 1980s. “I started doing this when my son was about four years old, and it was a good way for us to bond through the years,” Daisy said.

Along with locals like the Daisy family, Vanderheiden served customers from each of the 50 states and many foreign countries who wanted to experience an authentic, small-town Iowa café.  “In this business, you succeed by knowing what your customers want and providing it consistently,” Vanderheiden said.

While some people offered to buy Van’s Café after hearing that Vanderheiden planned to retire at the end of March, Vanderheiden is more focused on relaxing and spending time with family. For Beth Buelt, a waitress from Auburn, working the final weekend at Van’s Café was a bittersweet experience. “I don’t know Auburn without Van’s Café,” she said.

Vanderheiden himself acknowledged it was hard at times to say goodbye after serving a final Sunday dinner of turkey, dressing, baked ham, dessert and coffee on March 29. “For decades we’ve been very blessed with wonderful employees and loyal customers,” said Vanderheiden, who offered a special thank you to the people of Lake City for their huge support through the years. “It has been a pleasure to serve everyone. I’ll miss the people, because it’s the people who make the café.”

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