Longbranch celebrates 30 years in Farmington
In the 30 years Kenny LaBeau has owned the Wild West-themed Longbranch Saloon and Eatery in downtown Farmington, his many projects have kept him "hoppin' around like a flea on a hot skillet," to quote Festus, a colorful character from LaBeau's favorite TV show, Gunsmoke.
At one time he owned three restaurants: Longbranch, Gossips Bar & Grill (also in Farmington) and the Depot Bar and Grill in Fairbault, which was featured in the movie "Grumpy Old Men."
In August, LaBeau sold the Depot to his brother Jeff, and in March, he leased Gossips to Lisa Zarza.
But Longbranch, at 309 Third St., is his first love. He's celebrating 30 years this year serving beer behind the original bar up front and welcoming regulars through the swinging saloon doors into the restaurant in back.
"I had way too much stuff going on," LaBeau, 59, said. "I just want to focus on this place alone."
LaBeau's kitchen experience began early.
"I started out as a little boy with a grill with a light bulb in it," he said. His mother decorated cakes, so he and his brothers were always in the kitchen helping out.
At 14 years old, he started as a busboy for The Left Guard restaurant, owned by Fuzzy Thurston, the Green Bay Packers' starting left guard in the 1960s. He remembers pushing Karl Kassulke around in his wheelchair at the restaurant. A former Vikings player, Kassulke was left paralyzed after a motorcycle accident in 1973.
He moved from the sink to the stove before he left the Guard, cooking meals and organizing menus. By 21, he was booking bands at the Apple Place and Zorros restaurants in Apple Valley.
"I just kept getting calls asking me if I was looking for a job," he said.
He also was part-owner of Rascal's in Apple Valley back when it was called R.Berry's.
After acquiring a variety of experience, and getting to know several restaurant owners in the process, he decided to open his own business in the old Grain Exchange restaurant in downtown Farmington in 1986.
He had to replace the ceiling tiles. Before 2007, customers were allowed to smoke in bars and restaurants and those ceiling tiles had absorbed a lot of smoke, he said. He put decorative gold-colored ceiling tiles in and added the swinging saloon doors. His ads announced that Gunsmoke characters Miss Kitty and Matt Dillon were coming to Farmington.
Beer went for 25 cents and the weekly fish fry plate sold for $2.95.
A little over a year ago, he updated the interior with fresh paint, new tables, new decorations and log siding, but left the western theme intact.
The menu, although expanded over the years, still offers the same sizzling steak sirloin, fish fry, and soup and sandwiches made with fresh ingredients as it did 30 years ago.
LaBeau is most proud of his longevity.
"I don't think there's a restaurant south of the river that's had the same owner for 30 years," he said. Not even the Farmington Steakhouse, another long-time fixture on Third Street.
"The steakhouse was purchased the first day we opened," he said.
His secret to a loyal customer base has been his commitment to the community.
Besides the Melvin Jones Fellow award in 2014 from the Lions Foundation, he's received numerous ("about 80" he guessed) plaques for catering fundraisers, such as the Rambling River Center's golf classic over the years.
Besides fundraisers, he gives back in other ways.
For 20 years, he's had workers from Epic Enterprises Inc. in Dundas, do his cleaning.
"We work with developmentally disabled adults," explained Juli Dupont, job coach. She brings her crew of four in every weekday to vacuum, mop and clean bathrooms.
"Kenny's awesome," she said. "He's been wonderful. This gives the guys a sense of purpose."
Employee Jeff Alm has stayed with Longbranch for 17 years and says he could tell several stories about LaBeau, but wouldn't, at least not with LaBeau standing beside him.
"I like the people that come in," he said of what he enjoys most about working at Longbranch. "We get a lot of air traffic controllers in here." The Minneapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center is a few blocks over on Division Street.
LaBeau agreed that it's the people that keep him in the restaurant business. People like regular Charlie Walsh, who LaBeau joked comes in twice a day. "I come in to give Kenny a hard time," Walsh said.
In the last 30 years, LaBeau has been married, had three kids and two granddaughters, divorced and is currently engaged to Alicia King, whom he credits for his remodel. And, although he traveled all over the United States with his kids, his only regret is that the business kept him from spending more time with them.
"It's a job that takes a lot from you," he said.
Nevertheless, LaBeau still has more to give.
"I'm looking forward to another 20 years," he said.
In January and February, Longbranch will be celebrating the anniversary by marking down some of the old favorites. And, although he can't sell beer for 25 cents anymore, it will be just $1 during that time, he said.