With more than two decades in the Italian and Mexican food scene, chef Joaquin Lopez is rounding out his culinary experience as the new owner of a landmark Sun Prairie diner.
Lopez took over Country Cafe on June 3 from longtime owners Steve Johnson and Gary and Sue Merkes.
While scouting out new restaurants, Lopez and his wife Julia explored Sun Prairie options, and after visiting Country Cafe with a realtor they came back the next day for breakfast.
“We came and saw this place and my wife and I just fell in love with the people and the food,” Joaquin says.
The Mexico-born chef has been the driving force behind several popular Madison area restaurants and now with owning the diner he has come back to his roots—breakfast and comfort foods—that he cooked years ago.
The cafe’s made-from-scratch pancakes and waffles, Joaquin says, are some of the most popular breakfast items. Gary Merkes shared all the cafe’s favorite recipes, and Joaquin plans to honor that tradition by keeping those on the menu, especially the breakfast foods.
“The pancakes are amazing, there is no mix, and my wife just loves them,” Joaquin said, noting that the menu also includes scrambles, omelets, breakfast platters, and homemade cinnamon rolls.
Around breakfast time, the parking lot of the Country Cafe at 1030 Emerald Terrace fills up with customers. Julia, who works as a busser, server and hostess, has been noticing the steady stream of customers.
“When customers come in I give them a big smile and welcome them and let them know that they are important,” Julia says, enthusiastic about her new role in the family business.
The Lopezes have three children—Lizbeth, age 21, Denice, age 18, and Joaquin, Jr. age 8, the cafe’s food taster who ranks the curly fries and burgers as his favorites. Joaquin had his children in mind when he started this newest endeavor.
“My entire life has been working in the restaurant industry,” Joaquin says, “So I wanted to open a restaurant to bring in my family to learn about my passion for food.”
A savvy businessman, Joaquin has been making small improvement to the cafe. He’s added new equipment, including a point of sales system that has things running smoothly.
“I know how hard the servers work and it was too hard for them to do everything manually with a calculator,” Joaquin observes. “I want to give them the tools to make their lives easier and to give our customers better service.”
Updating the cafe’s interior with new booths, paint and other touches, is on his future to-do list.
There’s also a plan to update the menu, replacing less popular items with some new ones.
Country Cafe’s menu has homemade soups, sandwiches, burgers and salads. The home-style dinner menu offers steak, meatloaf, fried chicken, perch, shrimp, and more with a choice of sides. Lasagna, chicken Alfredo, pork chops are also featured, along with daily specials.
Joaquin plans to bring more emphasis on the dinner menu with Italian dishes and steaks—and to eventually be open on Saturday nights with a menu focus on pasta dishes that highlight Joaquin’s culinary background.
Suzie’s Delight, a favorite frozen dessert created by Sue Merkes, is a menu favorite with ice cream, chocolate wafers, peanuts, Butterfingers, whipped cream and a chocolate swirl. Customers have suggested that Julia creates a new sweet creation.
“People tell me that I have to bring in my own dessert now,” Julia says, “So I am thinking about that.”
Country Cafe regulars come for the service as much as the good food. Some of the staff has been working at the restaurant for decades, including waitress Ellen Davidson who retired in July after 45 years.
The restaurant also has history in the city.
In 1969, Vern and Elaine Klostermann bought the property and building on the site and opened up the Country Kitchen. Ronn Waseka ran the business, eventually renamed Country Cafe, until 1994. Steven Johnson and Sue and Gary Merkes owned it since 1994 until they sold it to Joaquin.
Customers have been very supportive of Joaquin and Julia taking over.
“They have opened their hearts and given us a big hug of support,” Julia says. “So I am very happy with the people of Sun Prairie.”
As other restaurants come and go in the City of Sun Prairie, Joaquin is steadfast in his commitment to keeping the Country Cafe open.
“My goal is to give customers the best service and the best food possible,” he says. “I want to run this place successfully for many, many more years to come.”