When Wally Lohman owned the Pickle Factory bar and grill in Pepin, Wis., his view from the front desk was of sparkling Lake Pepin, his own long dock with customers’ boats tied to it, and beyond, the green bluffs of God’s country — the Minnesota side of the river.
Now, as proprietor of Wally’s Covered Bridge Bar and Grill in Zumbrota, his view is of a parking lot, the four lanes of U.S. 52 and a cornfield on the other side.
He likes his new view better.
“When I look out front, I see 30,000 cars a day going up and down Highway 52,” Wally says. “And what I have here is a year-round business. Over there, I had a five-month business” because the village of Pepin, population generously estimated at 850, pretty much shuts down in the winter.
He also has roots in Zumbrota — he lived there for a time as a kid, and “I’m related to half the town,” he says. “I’m not kidding. I’m related to the Lohmans, the Olsons, the Kruses, the Shoemakers, the Lothers …”
That’s good for business, and so is the food coming out of his kitchen, including broasted chicken that’s juicy, crispy-skinned and meaty. Though it’s only been open since Memorial Day weekend, Wally’s gets a coveted Four Stars award for broasted chicken, along with Cathy’s Catering and Deli in Pine Island, Kelly’s Taphouse Bar & Grill in Red Wing and Hager Heights Drive-in, just east of Red Wing in Hager City, Wis.
Wally’s old restaurant in Pepin was about 25 miles south of Hager City, and he turned the Pickle Factory into one of the most popular joints along the river for more than 10 years. He sold it last year, packed up his Minnesota Vikings memorabilia, including jerseys and posters of friends Paul Krause and Dave Osborn, and moved to Arizona, where he planned to play an awful lot of golf.
Things changed, though, Wally says with a rueful expression, and he saw an opportunity when the Covered Bridge building came up for sale last spring. It had been dark since the former owner closed it in January.
Wally, who is 56 and has owned bars and restaurants for his entire adult life, depending on when you consider adulthood as starting — in his case, he bought his first bar when he was 22, in Plum City, Wis. — had some unpleasant surprises after buying the place, including cash registers and computers that required $10,000 to make them work.
He also had some frustrations in getting the food quality where he wanted it. When I was there for a first helping of broasted chicken last month, he said he was desperate to find “three good cooks” to get the restaurant up to speed.
They’re speeding along just fine now, thanks in part to the broasted chicken, which was a big draw under the previous ownership. “The broasters came with the place, and we sell a lot of chicken — I was just on the phone with a woman who ordered a 16-piece bucket” for takeout.
Wally, who was born in Red Wing, didn’t have a broaster at the Pickle Factory, but he did have a lot of favorites from that menu that have traveled with him, including the barbecue baby-back ribs, tangled-up onion rings, Bloody Marys and deep-fried pickles, which are a lot better than they sound.
He’s added some fresh touches to the restaurant, including artwork of golf legends and an array of wooden-shafted golf clubs, the kind they used back in the days when Zumbrota’s famous covered bridge still had cars passing through it. The adjacent liquor store is also up and running, decorated with fresh wildlife and landscape art painted by Wally’s partner, Kelly Quirk, who manages the off-sale.
“This fall, we’re going to push Vikings football, next summer we’ll have volleyball and we’re planning to really push the food,” he said. “We’re the only supper club within 15 to 20 miles, so if somebody wants to go out for a nice meal or an anniversary, we want to be that place.”
And if your last name happens to be Lohman, Olson, Kruse, Shoemaker or Lother, you might want to let the rest of the family know that Wally’s back.