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Brother and sister now 'hang out' at malt shop

Josh Hudek of River Falls and Bonny Brown are the brother-and-sister duo who've opened Pop's Malt Shop in a building in Ellsworth's west business district most recently housing the Rock N' Roll Café. The siblings say they're committed to being open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. <i>Bill Kirk photo</i>

ELLSWORTH -- Josh Hudek and Bonny Brown wanted a business venture they could share. The brother-and-sister didn't know exactly what it would be, Brown said, but whatever it was, they'd run it together.

"We hang out a lot," she said.

As of early August, they became proprietors of an Ellsworth eatery that's fulfilled their goal, though the customers probably do more of the "hanging out."

Pop's Malt Shop is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day in the west business district building most recently housing the Rock N' Roll Café at 358 W. Main St.

"We're committed to those hours," Hudek said, meaning the premises won't close early even if no patrons are there.

The only way the times will vary from what's displayed on their "open" sign is if they go out there and repaint it, he said. People can come 15 minutes before closing, and be assured they'll get in and be served, Brown added, gratified youths are already patronizing the soda fountain well into many evenings.

Moreover, the siblings are determined to cater to any special dietary needs, they said. Whether it's diabetes, gluten-sensitivity or lactose-intolerant, the shop will adapt to it. Servers are trained to accept special orders and immediately notify the kitchen. Then, that staff goes into action, following specific procedures.

"Anyone who comes in should be able to eat," Hudek said, mentioning even the peanut-containing items are separated from the others on the treats display in the interest of those with nut allergies.

The pair has invested in equipment for this purpose, she said. For example, there's a separate work station. The use of red plates signals a special need.

"We surpass Massachusetts guidelines," Brown said, understanding that's a state ahead of any other for dining establishments accommodating dietary requests. "Ninety-five percent of our menu is gluten-free," she illustrated, "and there's no up charge."

They also require their servers to pass a test in order to be employed, she said. There are approximately 20 part-time employees, some held over from previous management, but all trained in their system.

It involves no heat lamps, Hudek said. Consistency is emphasized, along with good portions, great food and reasonable prices. Brown estimated preparations for their Aug. 3 opening took six weeks, following a desire to "ease in" the staff. She admitted planning to meet dietary restrictions began in February, however.

Brown said she has over 26 years of experience in food service, including at Darla's in Stillwater, Minn., Champ's American in the Twin Cities and as a general manager at Perkins. Her brother praised her baking ability, listing shortcake, pies and cream puffs as the type of dessert fare to be offered. Conversely, the salads hold nutritional value.

"It's classic American cooking," he said, covering breakfast, lunch and dinner.

While the Franklin Street Bakery in Minneapolis and Udi's are suppliers, local sources are particularly relied on, he said. Meats are from Sailer's Market in Elmwood, and cheese curds from Kaufhold's Kurds in Ellsworth and the Ellsworth Co-op Creamery. The local focus extends to equipment -- coolers were purchased from Nor-Lake in Hudson, for instance.

Early Riser's Specials are featured until 11 a.m. daily and noon on Sundays, Hudek said. Friday fish fries will be prepared by "Cookie," known for his expertise with them at the former Sonny's in Ellsworth. Free delivery is available to local businesses from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. Elderly citizens ages 90 and above always eat for free.

The shop has a full liquor license, but liquor won't be heavily promoted, he said. Should someone want a beer with the fish fry, it will be served. Yet, alcohol isn't on the menu and the primary reason for it to be stocked is for large functions such as class reunions.

In that regard, reservations for large groups will be accepted, he said. The dining area can seat 70 comfortably.

Pop's Malt Shop was chosen as the name partially because malts will be a mainstay, Brown said. Twenty-seven flavors are featured, as are old-fashioned ice cream sodas. Fountain personnel are attired in white shirts and bow ties, and a pull-down spigot for the counter is coming.

"We wanted something simple and easy to remember," she said of another reason for the name.

Hudek is a 15-year River Falls resident (he founded Grow to Share). His wife is Anna (Huppert) and they have a seven-year-old daughter, Alexa. Brown lives in Woodbury, Minn. with her husband, Dale and they have grown children, ages 22 and 20, who help out at the shop.

The siblings almost ended up in Hammond, eyeing a possible location for their enterprise there before losing it to different prospects, Brown said. At that point, their search got really serious, an advertisement for the Ellsworth opportunity came to their attention and it was Hudek, with his spouse, who dined at the former Rock N' Roll. He called his sister about it on-the-spot.

"The concept fit our theme," he said, besides the previous owners being "easy to work with."

Community-minded, the new management hopes to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with area schools, food pantries and the like, Brown said.

Bill Kirk

Bill Kirk was editor of the Pierce County Herald in Ellsworth, from 1988 to February, 2015 and is now on staff as a reporter. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He previously worked in the media distribution department at the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis campus and is past editor of The Tri-County News in Osseo, Wisconsin.

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