Cerro Gordo County Iowa
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The Globe Gazette
Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
March 16, 2014

Serving Up Success
By Tim Ackarman

Jay Kvigne has run restaurants in Mason City for a bit longer than he expected -- nearly three decades longer.

“I thought I was only going to be here two weeks,” Kvinge said.

Instead, he’s been serving food to North Iowans for 28 years, most recently as the owner of Whiskey Creek Wood Fire Grill.

Operating a restaurant takes a major commitment of time and money, Kvigne said. Business can fluctuate with the weather, the economy and changing tastes of customers, among other factors.

Peaks and valleys are inevitable, Kvigne said, “but you hope you have more peaks than valleys.”

He believes the formula for success is simple, but not easy: “Offer high-quality food, high-quality service and a clean restaurant.”

And never lose your competitive edge.

“I look at this business like a sport,” Kvigne said. “I want to play to win.”

The Gays Mills, Wis., native served in the Air Force for four years, primarily in law enforcement. After discharge he performed farm labor while seeking work as a police officer.

A chance meeting with a restaurateur friend led Kvinge to a job with Country Kitchen. Within two years he was managing the Oelwein location.

When an unexpected vacancy occurred at Mason City’s Country Kitchen in 1986, Kvigne agreed to fill in on a short-term basis.

“I’ve been here ever since,” he said.

Kvigne had visited Clear Lake regularly while playing in a basketball league. One attraction in particular stood out.

“I met a girl,” he said. “It blossomed after I got over here.”

The blossom grew quickly, and nine months later the girl was his wife, Kim Kvigne, a Mason City teacher.

In 1988 Kvigne bought the business. In 1998 he purchased the building and eventually remodeled.

While his North Iowa roots grew firmer, his confidence in the business began to waiver.

“The Country Kitchen franchise, I could see it starting to fade,” he said.

With his franchise agreement expiring in 2007, Kvigne faced a dilemma.

“Do I renew my contract, or should I try something different?”

So Kvinge was receptive when approached by a franchiser from Whiskey Creek. He, his wife and his stepson went to visit the company headquarters in Carney, Neb.

“They put on a nice show to try to sell us on the franchise,” he said.

Kvigne appreciated the atmosphere and the food, “especially the peach cobbler,” and decided to make the change.

Transitioning from Country Kitchen to Whiskey Creek began with a complete remodel of the restaurant on Highway 122 West.

“The only thing that was left was the outside walls,” Kvigne said.

Although both restaurants offered casual dining, the menus were significantly different. Food costs were higher than what Kvigne was used to, and there were considerable training expenses getting his staff up to speed.

Kvigne had a lot to learn as well. There was a new computer system to master, and as the name suggests, Whiskey Creek serves alcohol.

“I’d never run a bar before,” Kvigne said. “That’s been definitely a different kind of journey for me.”

While Whiskey Creek opened on April 28, 2008, the journey still offers challenges.

Kvigne has about 38 employees, 12 full time. Finding and retaining good ones is always a struggle.

“In the restaurant world we see all kinds of people,” Kvigne said. “I’ve got one of my best crews right now, (but) I’m always looking, always taking applications.

“I don’t expect people to stay in the restaurant business forever,” he added, “but I appreciate the ones that do.”

Many go on to successful careers in other professions. Kvigne is happy to provide them with their initial work experience as well as a good recommendation when it’s been earned.

“If there’s something better out there for you, I’ll help you,” he said.

Not all employees work out, Kvigne noted. Dealing with them is among his greatest challenges.

“I don’t like to fire anyone, (but) I have expectations for them and for myself,” he said. “I feel like I’m firm but fair. If you have someone with a bad attitude, you have to get them out. It will spread.”

Employees seem to appreciate the positive atmosphere Kvigne insists upon.

“This is the best job I’ve had in a long time,” said server Kyndra Chambers of Dougherty.

Chambers, who will graduate from the North Iowa Area Community College medical assistant program in June, said the staff and customers at Whiskey Creek are friendly and the restaurant is well organized.

“Jay is a cool boss,” she added. “He’s a good guy.”

Relationships with employees often last after they have moved on, Kvigne noted. This is frequently gratifying, occasionally heartbreaking.

One employee who struggled with substance abuse eventually left the restaurant. Years later he was struck by a car while walking along a roadway.

Kvigne went to visit, only to learn he had died.

“He had me listed as next of kin,” Kvigne said. “That one really hit me hard.”

Long hours in the restaurant business can put a strain on family relationships as well, Kvigne said.

“The first couple years were kind of tough,” Kvigne said of married life. His wife learned to cope by having “lots of hobbies and lots of friends.”

Whiskey Creek is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. from Sunday through Thursday and 11 to 11 on Friday and Saturday, and Kvigne is usually there. “I own it, I’m in it.”

Yet he strives to find a balance. He takes most Sundays off and squeezes in family time elsewhere when he can.

“I think our marriage today is better than it was in the first five years,” Kvigne said.

He also makes time for the occasional fishing trip and regular visits to his native Wisconsin, including annual attendance at a Green Bay Packers game.

Kvigne supports his community as well. He has donated to numerous fundraisers over the years, remains active in the Rotary Club and is also a member of the Evening Lions.

Most of his focus, however, is on business.

“I’ve really had my nose to the grindstone, trying to make it work.”

Kvigne said Whiskey Creek sales were strong his first year but have since been inconsistent. He has attempted to grow the business by promoting his catering service, by using strategic advertising and by maintaining a presence on social media.

“In today’s world with social media, everything’s out there,” Kvigne said, noting this increases the pressure to provide consistently excellent food and service.

Kvigne is excited by new initiatives the Whiskey Creek franchise is making on that front.

It is rolling out a new customer loyalty program that will offer rebates and gifts to Whiskey Creek regulars.

There will also be a new barbecue menu.

“There’s a 500-pound smoker we had to put in,” Kvigne said. “Every single day we’ll have fresh-smoked meat: brisket, pork and ribs.”

After learning about, and sampling, the new menu during training in Brookings, S.D., Kvigne was impressed.

“I thought ours was good,” he said regarding his current barbecue offerings, “but theirs is really good.”

Kvigne is also excited about the positive changes he sees in Mason City and all of North Iowa.

“I love the Mason City area,” he said. “It has a lot to offer that people don’t realize, and a lot of people in place who are working hard to make Mason City prosper.”

Although many improvements have been focused on downtown, Kvigne believes the prosperity will extend to all of Mason City and beyond. He hopes to part of that for some time.

“My goal is to pay off my business before I die,” Kvigne said only half-jokingly. “I would like to retire someday, but I’ve got a ways to go yet.”

Despite doing a job he never imagined in a place he’d never planned to stay, Kvigne is pleased with how things have turned out.

“I enjoy people,” he said, “that’s the biggest thing.”

Serving Up Success

  • Investigate costs thoroughly before starting any venture.

  • Have a good attorney and a good accountant.

  • Invest in appropriate training for staff.

  • Keep a positive attitude.

  • Set goals and be willing to face the obstacles necessary to meet them

    Photograph courtesy of Globe-Gazette/Tim Ackarman

    Transcription by Sharon R. Becker, March of 2014

     

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