• Mickie Smith brings a slice of Americana to Elk River with her Dunn Bros franchise
by Britt Aamodt
When Mickie Smith, then Ebner, was growing up, the place to go in Elk River to chew the fat and hash out business deals over coffee was Crossroads Café.
Today, the Bank of Elk River occupies Crossroads’ old lot. But the tradition of a community watering hole, where everyone you know rings through the door at some point, continues just north on 169 at Dunn Bros.
This year marks Smith’s 10th anniversary as owner of the coffee shop. Here, the beans are roasted fresh each morning, a sign on the wall encourages guests to laugh and the atmosphere is as welcome as a steamy mug of French roast on a winter’s day.
“This is my home,” Smith joked. “My other home is somewhere else.”
Smith grew up in Ebnerville, the unofficial name for the stretch of Parrish Avenue just across the Mississippi in Otsego.
Smith, her parents and three siblings were the Ebners residing in the 10th house on the right. You could always count on five or six Ebner families living nearby. Her grandparents owned Ebner’s Bait and relatives operated the Elk River Box Factory.
“I was a tomboy growing up,” said Smith, who wore pants under her Catholic school skirt and played sports with the boys.
Free hours were taken up by neighborhood softball games. Sometimes she helped out at the box factory, assembling thin strips of wood into berry containers.
When she was 10, she started busing tables at Crossroads Café. She graduated to waitress and, from the owners, learned early lessons in customer service and business management.
“They taught me so much. They created a great work environment. But, boy, you better be doing your job,” she said.
Smith knew the hour by the faces peering over the menus. Everyone came, bank presidents, Johnson’s department store employees, Kemper’s pharmacists. There was the 10 a.m. coffee break, the noontime business lunch and the afternoon wind-down.
Later, Smith worked in a dental office. She got married and drove a truck for her husband’s business, T.S. Construction. She was mom to Jessica, Leezza and Samantha.
In 2001, Smith’s employer, Down Jones, closed its Twin Cities location and she was out of a job. But she’d recently noticed a new coffee shop in Elk River.
“I put in my application. I got a call that night and got the job, and then I started the next day,” she said of her whirlwind introduction to Dunn Bros.
The owners, Jim and Pam Waltmann, showed her how to make drinks. They showed her how to roast beans and order supplies. Within weeks, she was running the store for them.
So it didn’t come as a total surprise when they asked if she wanted to buy the franchise in 2003. She did.
“I thought, OK, I’ll do this for five years. And here I am in 2013,” she said.
Smith’s daughters have all worked in the shop. Her daughters’ friends have worked there. Like Crossroads Café, Dunn Bros. is a family environment, but family defined in general terms.
“I have customers who come here so often that other customers think they’re my husbands,” Smith said.
Nate Bunker is one of those regulars. An electrician, he swings in before work to have coffee with dad Jay, then between jobs to get his caffeine fix and see who’s around, and later on to spend time with wife Brenda.
Like Smith, Bunker grew up in the area, but added, “I’ve met a lot of people at Dunn Bros.”
A crowd collects by the armchairs. They talk, read the paper and banter with Smith about the recent Dunn Bros. app that lets them pay by phone or the new fall-flavored lattes (pumpkin spice, gingerbread, mocha mint) or about what’s going on in their world.
Smith’s a big reason people keep coming back, said Jay Bunker.
“She’s always cheerful, happy and laughing.”
Plus, in a town numbering more than 20,000, she still remembers her customers’ names and their favorite drinks.
“This isn’t work for me,” she said. “This really is home.”