When QUARTER/Quarter restaurant in Harmony closed last month, it was a body blow to the Fillmore County town of 1,000.
It was more than that for chef/owner Stephen Larson and his wife and partner, Lisa Flicker, who was a baker and pastry chef. It was the brutal end of a dream.
The restaurant closed March 1 with hopes of reopening, but it closed for good on May Day, and when I talked to Stephen a week ago today, he said the building was to be listed for sale that day or Friday. I asked if he was able to join me at the restaurant to talk and shoot a photo, and he quickly said no.
“It’s exceptionally painful just to be there,” he said. “It was five years of putting everything into it, and then to have it fail … it’s pretty rough. We’re actively trying not to be there at all.”
You could tell QUARTER/quarter was a chef-owner’s dream because it didn’t necessarily make a lot of sense in Harmony, about 53 minutes from Rochester and an hour from La Crosse, Wis. But after a visit or two, it made perfect sense: Stephen and Lisa wanted to create a friendly, low-key, fine dining place in a town with plenty of tourist potential, just 20 minutes from the tourist mecca of Lanesboro.
They did that. It ran for five years, and Stephen’s convinced it still would be running if it hadn’t been for road construction on Minnesota Highway 16 west of Lanesboro — construction that took not just one summer season, but two.
“If there’s one thing I can point out, and it’s become kind of a hot topic (here) lately, it’s that MnDOT closed Highway 16 between Lanesboro and Harmony two summers in a row,” he said. “That was basically our tourism lifeline. We had a 40 percent reduction in business because of that.”
There was a detour, of course, and I traveled that detour a few times myself, including once when we were headed to QUARTER/quarter — but “getting people to drive the extra 15 miles (to Harmony) and then throw in a detour — they’ll say ‘nah.'”
The second summer of construction was especially frustrating because it was “to replace a bridge they simply didn’t do the first time around. It could have been closed for only one year,” he said.
For whatever reason, business tailed off. “We did everything right on our side,” Stephen said. “People loved it; we had an outstanding reputation — people would drive from Rochester, La Crosse and Decorah to join us. We were well-liked and offered a great value.”
The highway issue was “devastating,” he said. “I know a couple other businesses that say it was a major factor in their closing. The general feeling in the community is that any place that relied on tourism for any sort of percentage got hit extraordinarily hard.”
Stephen and Lisa had plenty of experience in the hospitality business. They lived in the Twin Cities for 12 years, and Stephen worked at major restaurants such as D’Amico Cucina in Minneapolis before buying a 10-acre farm near Harmony and opening a bed and breakfast and cooking school called Gourmets’ Gardens. They both worked at the Old Village Hall restaurant in Lanesboro for a while before opening QUARTER/quarter.
QUARTER/quarter was one of those rare, unexpected places, like Nosh in Lake City and the Harbor View Cafe in Pepin, Wis., that aspires to farm-fresh, metro-caliber cuisine in a small town. Nosh and Harbor View have glorious Lake Pepin to draw people in; QUARTER/quarter lacked that destination quality. But it definitely had the menu, quality, wine list and neighborly attitude to make a go of it for five years.
Stephen, 52, is working at the Oneota Food Co-op in Decorah, and Lisa has switched careers and is a certified nurse’s assistant. Stephen said they’ll likely sell the farm and move to the Decorah area. He continues to work on a gardening and cooking program, “Garden Connections,” on public station KSMQ-TV.
I asked him if he’d consider another restaurant job down the road. He laughed uneasily and said, “If I even bring that idea up…” But “I never say never. You really just don’t know what the future may bring.”
I’ve known a lot of people in the restaurant business over the years, and more than just about anyone else, they never say never. They’re eternal optimists, and if you love the business, you never quite leave it.
“I loved QUARTER/quarter,” Stephen said. “We did what we wanted to do. I accomplished a menu that embraced comfort sorts of food but was able to put my unique chef’s perspective on it as well. We made everything that we used. We were able to make a restaurant that used my skills as a chef and yet provided food that was approachable to the everyday sort of guy.”
For a small town like Harmony, that’s a treasure, an incredible stroke of good luck, and when it closes, you can only say it’s a big loss. Here’s to the thought that someone with Stephen and Lisa’s creativity, talent and work ethic discovers that building for sale on Center Street in Harmony.