The County Journal
Friday, May 24, 2013
by HOPE MCLEOD
Delta Diner is thriving … in the middle of nowhere
DELTA — It may not be the center of the universe like the old Delta Store was in the early 1990s, but the Delta Diner of today, 12 miles south of Iron River, is a world unto itself.
A frame-up restoration of a 1940 Silk City Diner, the Delta Diner in Delta seats 48 and hosts anywhere from 180 to 250 customers daily during the summer months. Offseason it becomes a quaint, local hangout where a diverse clientele swaps stories and feasts on hand-ground burgers, unique omelets and an assortment of sandwiches and pancakes. The across-the-counter kitchen makes for an intimate atmosphere and sets the stage for an authentic diner experience and stimulating conversation.
“I’m a fan of diners from way back,” said Fond du Lac native Todd Bucher, 51, co-owner of the Diner with his wife, Nina, 47. “I went into my first diner on a family vacation when I was 12, out east somewhere in Pennsylvania.”
Once a nostalgic memory, now a career, the Buchers have successfully invented a life for themselves in the middle of nowhere. In 2002 they transported an original East Coast diner and plunked it down in Delta, population 275. Sound like the movie “Bagdad Café?” Well, it is, just a northwoods version.
“The first eight years was ‘build it and see if they come,’” Todd said.
Come they did, so much so the Buchers had to build an extension.
“We’ve just completed a two-year plan,” he said.
That plan consisted of the Delta Diner Store, the Pancake Porch and the When Pigs Fly Bakery. It’s perfect for customers waiting to be seated in the diner, or for people wanting a lighter, more continental breakfast. It serves espresso drinks, smoothies and delicious baked goods by Krista Bloomquist.
The bakery/store was built out of the ruins of a cobblestone garage from the first Delta Store, built in 1923. The Buchers didn’t realize the rich history behind those cobblestones until they purchased the lot in 2002. Over time, locals such as William F. Meyer revealed that history to them.
“Bill Meyer was a family member of the diner,” Todd said.
Meyer’s parents owned the first Delta Store from 1923-1947. Considered the center of the universe (well, Delta’s universe, that is), it housed a gas station, a bar, a general store, a restaurant, an ice house, a post office and a train stop for the Duluth Atlantic and South Shore Railroad.
“There used to be a trestle at the Camp 1 Road,” Todd said, “but it’s not there anymore.”
Meyer passed away 2 years ago, leaving behind his historic photographs and his strong presence.
“He’s on our menu — No. 9,” Todd said.
The Buchers moved to Iron River 20 years ago, abandoning fast-paced corporate jobs in Chicago in search of a more meaningful life, although they didn’t know what that looked like yet. First they built their own house and became familiar with the area.
“I spent a lot of time fishing (on the White River in Delta) and drove by that spot a lot,” Todd said, referring to where the diner stands today.
Intrigued by the dilapidated Standard Oil sign and the cobblestone building buckled at its knees, he knew something interesting happened there, and maybe could happen again.
“One thing led to another,” he said.
The diner fantasy took hold. In a fairly short period of time (2002-2003) the Buchers found and purchased an authentic stainless steel diner and created their new business. Todd provided construction skills as well as marketing and sales savvy from his previous job. Nina took on the books, some recipes, the Diner Store, and now has her own retail business, Jalepena Nina’s Spicy Pickled Garlic.
Inside the diner it looks like everyone’s on a train or waiting for one. Elbow to elbow, customers nuzzle up to the counter where the cook flips burgers, omelets or sauteed veggies. The booths connect one to the other as do the many diverse conversations. Since the beginning, the Buchers wanted to extend these conversations into a wider arena in order to stimulate new ideas and discussion on interesting as well as challenging topics.
“Without making a political statement,” Todd said, “the world has a lack of civility nowadays, in terms of where people stand on issues.”
So they decided to bring people together around good food and factual information. Starting in May they’ve dished up “The Blue Plate Lecture Series” — four lectures by college professors on subjects ranging from geoscience to Oryoki, or a Japanese Zen style of eating. Each night a special meal is served.
The first lecture/dinner took place May 4 and featured Dr. Tom Fritz, associate professor of geoscience at Northland College. While customers ate barbecue baby back ribs, the professor expounded on “The Science You Need to Know About Iron in the Penokees.” Though mining the Penokee Range is a hot-dish topic, the Buchers encouraged customers “to leave your politics in the parking lot,” which they did.
The next lecture is June 1: “View of Life Inside a Japanese Monastery,” presented by Les Alldritt, associate professor of religion and philosophy at Northland College. His plan is to evoke a genuine Oryoki, or three-bowl style of eating that was central to daily life inside ancient and now modern Zen monasteries. The lecture, a Japanese-style meal and drink costs $28. A three-bowl set to be used by each participant will be commissioned by local potter Evan Hestekin and can be purchased for an additional $60.
On June 22, Dr. Erica Hannickel, professor of environmental history at Northland College, will present “Midwestern Wine? Who Knew!” Before Napa Valley became winemaking capital USA, apparently Cincinnati stomped a few grapes of its own. Hannickel will share that history and also raise a toast to the current wine renaissance in the Midwest. The blue plate will be pepper encrusted tenderloin with peppercorn cream sauce and vegetable, diner mac and cheese side, and some regional wines and/or other drinks. Cost is $34.
On July 22, Dr. Derek H. Ogle, professor of mathematical sciences and natural resources, will present the lecture “First Take on the Long-Term Fisheries Study of Inch Lake in Delta.” He’ll share information about Inch Lake, a small catch-and-release fishery in Bayfield County, and also reveal results of the research done by Northland College for six years on this rare no-harvest lake.
All dinner/lectures start at 6:45 p.m.
“We realize we can’t be everything to everybody,” Todd said.
But they’re trying. Simple, fresh foods executed with a flare, but also jalepeno pancakes, perch BLT sandwiches and brussels sprouts omelets. Their burgers are made from fresh-ground beef — 50 percent sirloin, 50 percent chuck — with different toppings. Todd said it’s an authentic diner experience that’s “just a step up.”
“We’re very fortunate — after 10 years, we still love going to work,” Todd said.
So does the staff, he said. They’ve garnered a great customer base and have developed strong partnerships within the community, like Sixth Street Market in Ashland which provides homemade sausages.
And now the in-house bakery.
“People drive from all over for our homemade pies,” Todd said.
And bagel bombs stuffed with cream cheese, scallions and bacon.
The old Delta Store may have carried the essentials of the day, but its successor has what people need in 2013: simple, delicious food, congenial conversation and a sense of belonging — even if it’s only for a few hours in the middle of nowhere.
To find out more about the Delta Diner, visit www.deltadiner.com.
Hope McLeod can be reached at email@example.com