PLAZA - Oil-field workers might be far from home but they are never far from a home-cooked meal in Plaza.
Betty Erickson, owner of Country Market & Cafe, makes sure of that.
One of the first changes Erickson made in taking over the cafe in December 2009 was to extend service into the supper hours. Open weekdays and Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., the cafe is more than a full-time job for Erickson, who keeps her small grocery open even later in the small town of about 100 residents.
Jill Schramm/MDN • Betty Erickson sits in Country Cafe Feb. 9, where she serves home-cooked meals to those away from home.
"It's not so much like work," Erickson said in explaining how she manages the long hours.
Cafe employee Patty Rettke, who has been with Erickson from the start, said it's the laughter that makes working there so enjoyable. The plaque on the wall stating "Live Well, Laugh Often, Love Much" fits the place.
Erickson said the people and the opportunity to serve them is what drives her.
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"I just think every little town needs a cafe and a grocery store," she said.
Erickson has operated Country Market for nearly five years. The cafe drives that business, though, because much of the traffic is diners who stop across the hall to pick up a few things. The importance of the cafe in keeping the store going was why Erickson assumed the business rather than see the cafe close when the former owner left.
Erickson is a native of Plaza, located southwest of Minot, just off N.D. Highway 23. She worked for a time in Cando and Devils Lake before returning to her home area in 1985. She has a long history in the food-service industry and cooking for nursing homes, including those in Parshall and New Town.
Her motivation for opening a market in Plaza was more time to look after her grandson, whom she and her husband, Don, adopted after their daughter's death in 2007. They have another daughter in Wyoming and a daughter in Minot, who with her husband operates Tubby's, a food business well known at the North Dakota State Fair. The Ericksons have five grandsons.
One of Erickson's sisters used to run the cafe in Plaza years ago before the current building was constructed. Their aunt ran it before that. Even now, Erickson gets occasional help from family members who live in the area. Three sisters help with the cafe, and her brother and husband pick up supplies. Her husband also helps with the book work.
Without the support of the Parshall grocery, local businesses and customers who set up pre-paid accounts, survival would be financially difficult, Erickson said. In exchange, she feels good to have created six jobs.
Her employees have included a cook from Africa and Brazilian twins who cooked and waited tables. Her newest cook is from Oklahoma, and Erickson said meeting people from all over makes the work interesting.
Another of the joys of running the cafe was the opportunity to once again work alongside her mother, Helen Grotte. She said her best memories are from their time working together at the New Town Good Samaritan Home, where they once baked 1,200 caramel rolls for a fundraiser. After taking on the cafe, Erickson asked her mother to join her.
"My mother was a good cook," she said. "She was here every day. Even that last month that she got sick, she wanted to stay with me."
Grotte lost her life to cancer last December, but her memory lives on in a hibiscus plant that stands near the cafe table where she often sat after she no longer could work. Erickson remembers the group of about six truckers who carried in the plant with its showy orange flowers as a gift to express their sympathy to her as a friend.
Erickson has welcomed the truckers, who for lack of housing live out of their trucks parked next to the city park across from the cafe.
"She's really stuck up for us in the community," said Jeff Bartlett, a trucker who is a regular at Country Cafe.
Not many places serve milk shakes in December, but Country Cafe does, said trucker Brad Norgart. He particularly recommends the Friday night buffets but it's all good.
From prime rib to soup and sandwiches, he said, "She doesn't miss a beat."
One time when a group of truckers couldn't make it to the cafe for lunch, they requested field delivery. The request was well outside the cafe's scope of service, but no matter. Erickson delivered.
"A lot of truck drivers tell you it's good to have a home-cooked meal. You hear that a lot," she said.
Erickson has been known to whip up a little something for a hungry trucker on Sundays even though the cafe is closed. Setting out some self-serve, self-pay soup and sandwiches on Sunday is another of the ways she has made sure no one goes hungry.
The cafe also has shower facilities for truckers.
It's not just the oil-field workers who appreciate the cafe.
The cafe contracts with the local aging commission to serve senior meals three times a week. The market also will deliver groceries to people who can't get out in the winter.
For the community, Country Cafe rents out a meeting room and recently began hosting classes. Astrology classes were the first, and there are ideas for more courses on topics such as grant writing, flower gardening or lefse making.
But if there's one more thing the cafe is noted for, it's the artificial fir tree. It serves as a Christmas tree but also a Valentine's tree, St. Patrick's Day tree or tree for whatever the season. Changing the decorations is easier than taking the tree down, Erickson explains.
"It's a conversation piece," she said.