Sunn Cafe – Mt. Horeb, WI

By Joy Miller –

As Driftless farmers, Rufus and I have the pleasure of meeting the creative chefs who turn our ingredients into full flavored compositions.

I met Cindy Curtes and Tasha Peterson, owners of the Sunn Cafe, during an employee wellness fair at Duluth Trading Company in Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin. We both had tables set up; mine full of veggies from the farm, theirs full of healthy samples, salads and mini sandwiches I eyeballed from across the room. Cindy, seeing my veggie display, inquired about sourcing tomatoes for her upcoming summer dishes. We chatted, exchanged information, and started doing business together. Whenever Rufus returned from a delivery to the Sunn Cafe, he had an anecdote of some kindness they’d extended to him; a cup of soup or fresh salad to carry him through a long day on the road, single handedly saving him from gas station food many times. 

Photo – Joy Miller

Recently, we had the joy of sitting down to an outstanding lunch and getting to know them a little better. These culinary consorts are long time besties and partners with a compelling backstory. Cindy, from Milwaukee, came to the area for college in the 80s, moved away for law school, and returned to Dane County where she practiced law for thirty years. Her law office was right down the street from the cafe. She once tried to return to her hometown of Milwaukee to join her family practice, but it only lasted 6 weeks. She just couldn’t do it. She longed to  return to the Driftless for the natural beauty and proximity to parks and rivers for hiking and kayaking. Tasha, from Stevens Point, also fell in love with the Driftless and enjoys being just outside of Madison. She had been a massage therapist, a nanny, and an assortment of other jobs before considering opening a cafe with Cindy. Both women love to cook and grew up in families who owned businesses. They started to joke around about opening a cafe in Mt. Horeb, but soon the jokes became serious, as they saw a need in the community for a quick healthy lunch option. They didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes or try something already being done. Rather, they stepped into serving the growing demand of the healthy working lunch. They opened the Sunn Cafe in October of 2016. 

When we asked them how they came up with the name, they said they were sharing a drink next door at The Grumpy Troll and playing around on Norwegian translator. They found the word “sunn”, which means “good for you”. This bit of vocabulary brought together their healthy food philosophy and the Scandanavian history of the town, thus the Sunn Cafe was born. 

Before the cafe came into the world, a meat market stood in its place on the corner of 2nd and Main Street owned by Dick Dickman. His slogan was, “You can’t beat Dick’s meat”. I mean, of all the cheeky food puns, that one is particularly brazen. However, Dick encouraged the burgeoning entrepreneurs, even gave them a deal on coolers. The place needed a lot of work, but when it became available, they made their move. It took them six months to gut the interior and create the cafe on a fresh canvas. They had no restaurant experience, but a clear vision to cater to the working lunch through counter service; fast, fresh recipes from scratch with high quality, locally sourced ingredients.

Photo – Joy Miller

Cindy commented that it’s tough to be a purist when it comes to sourcing everything locally. For example, I had the Sunn Slayer for lunch, a delectable vegetarian option topped with ripe avocado, a creamy treat from a land of perpetual sunshine. However, they prioritize local ingredients for many of the items on their menu; sourcing their beef locally, apples from a nearby orchard, kraut from Door County, Just Coffee out of Madison, and serving all Wisconsin cheeses and beers. They strive to incorporate as much local food as possible on their menu, often splurging on a unique ingredient to highlight in their daily special. Summer is when sourcing is at it’s best and they can explore all the flavors of the Driftless from farms like ours, their own home garden, and the backyard produce of friends and customers who bring the overflow in bulging grocery bags. The bounty of the growing season is all chopped up into a daily special. 

The menu at the cafe has evolved over time, but every staple started out as a special and proved itself as a house favorite. The lunch combinations are a collaboration between Cindy and Tasha who draw inspiration from family recipes (like Cindy’s grandmother’s vinaigrette) as well as experimentation in their home kitchen and trying out dishes on friends. These food artisans are always coming up with a new way to fix your lunch, saying they’ve got to get creative with the specials because the same people are coming in. Each morning Cindy posts the special on social media, and if it’s not posted quickly enough, customers are earnestly inquiring, already looking forward to lunch before the workday has begun. 

Photo – Joy Miller

When Rufus asked if they’d tried anything that ended in disaster, they told us about the time they tried to carry on Dick Dickman’s lunch special. Back when the cafe was Dick’s Meat Market, he sold a contractor’s lunch along with cigarettes and cheap beer at his front counter; meatloaf and such for $6. They thought they would keep up the tradition, but found they couldn’t make it well and sell it for $6. The contractors didn’t want to pay $12. It didn’t align with their vision, so they dropped it from their repertoire. It only lasted 6 weeks.   

Photo – Joy Miller

Most people who come through the door of the Sunn Cafe are repeat customers. Cindy can call half of them by name and predict their order before they arrive at the counter. Some patrons eat lunch there four times a week, others load up on goodies for the weekend. They’ve become friends with many of the people they feed. Duluth Trading Company and Vortex Industries have been mainstay corporate customers, calling in large lunch orders for multiple departments during the week. Pre-Covid they would cater self serve lunches for them with big spreads of salads, sandwiches, and fresh flowers for a touch of natural elegance. Now they pack individual lunch bags for each person to make it as contactless as possible. Forgoing flowers for facemasks, they braced themselves for the worst in 2020. 

When Covid hit, the cafe closed for 6 weeks, from April 1st to mid-May, and had no indoor dining until late August. They were able to set up a lot of outdoor seating, and the village even brought picnic tables from the park to accommodate outdoor dining. Their take out orders went through the roof and they were grateful to have a solid foundation with online ordering before the pandemic. Piece by piece, they put their business back together; executing strict cleaning procedures and high levels of organization, delivering to vehicles curbside, putting in an additional phone line, calculating contactless, measuring table spacing, whipping up many small batches (in case of an unexpected shutdown, they didn’t risk making large batches) and installing a state of the art HVAC system to reduce airborne exposures. Their SecureAire purification system with Active Particle Control technology was installed in November and is part of a case study focused on indoor air quality, ventilation, exhaust, and reducing particles such as bacteria and viruses. Their customer base takes Covid seriously, and they’re doing everything they can to keep staff and patrons safe. 

In the upheaval of the pandemic, Cindy and Tasha were afraid customers would get out of their lunch routine, but they haven’t. In fact, they’ve seen an outpouring of support in an uncertain time for restaurants. It has been a year of tough business decisions; putting in a lot of sweat equity, running a tight margin, laying off half their staff, and cutting employee hours. However, the gratuity has been thoughtful and generous. Often what staff lose in hours, they make up for in tips. Customers leave folding money even when they just order from the deli case. The ladies of the Sunn Cafe are humbled by the support and added that it really makes the staff feel valuable. As a way to give back to their community, they’ve made and donated 600 quarts of soup to Neighbors Helping Neighbors during the pandemic. 

Who inspired this spirit of warmth that radiates from the Sunn Cafe? They said Jerry Schubert, longtime proprietor of Schubert’s Restaurant, has sparked a passion for hospitality in their business. Smiles swept across their faces as they described Jerry’s counsel. “He is the quintessential hospitality and customer service guy, in his eighties now, but he worked the business every day”. He would routinely bring them articles about hospitality and tell them how important it is to make customers feel special. He had a commitment to the community they now carry in their daily work.

Photo – Joy Miller

Like farming, the restaurant business is not for the faint of heart. Even before Covid, it was an industry littered with failed endeavours. Many establishments won’t make it through the pandemic. Feeding folks is demanding, costly work, sometimes too demanding and too costly to be sustainable. It’s not an easy choice. It can be hard on relationships and families. Sometimes Cindy thinks the $200 billable hour for legal work never looked so good. So, why do we do it? Why do restaurant owners and farmers choose the high maintenance, low return medium of food. A lot of it is mundane. It’s not glamorous. However, food is a medium of love. Tasha lights up when she says, “The love we get from people walking in the door is insane”, and I know what she means. We build community around food. We connect, support each other, and come together to meet our most common need. These are the undercurrents of working with food, the magic beneath the mundane, and the ladies of Sunn Cafe are making magic for lunch.