Interested in trying the Porky Burger? Mitchell native brings BrickHouse Lounge to Freeman
Duffel looks to rejuvenate downtown eatery
FREEMAN, S.D. — One of Tobi Duffel’s first jobs was working at the Town House Cafe in Mitchell. At age 14, she started washing dishes at the restaurant, once located near the corner of First Avenue and Main Street.
The Mitchell native worked her way up to waitressing at the venue before graduating from Mitchell High School in 1993, starting a family and holding a variety of different jobs ranging from retail to customer service and hospitality roles.
Now, she’s running a business as the owner of the BrickHouse Lounge, a restaurant she opened in December in Freeman.
“I was interested in doing it. I started as a dishwasher (at the Town House) and worked my way up to waitressing. And I helped them with banquets and weddings and stuff,” Duffel told the Mitchell Republic. “I really enjoyed it because I’m a people person and it’s fast-paced.”
Duffel and her husband left Mitchell for Letcher, where they lived for about 25 years before relocating to Sioux Falls. Apartment life and the size of South Dakota’s largest city didn’t mix well with her family's preference for small town living, and they eventually moved to Monroe, a community of about 180 residents about 30 miles west of Sioux Falls.
She has held a number of jobs over the years, complementing her husband’s trucking business. She has worked at banks, convenience stores and restaurants and lounges. But eventually, owning her own business became her goal, and she decided to move forward with a restaurant venture.
“I’ve always kind of wanted to run my own business. My husband and I had Tobi Trucking and Duffel Dirt & Demolition, but I’ve always wanted to run my own restaurant. So when the opportunity came here and we looked at the building and we started the process, it just kind of grew from there,” Duffel said.
Duffel seized her chance when she learned about the empty restaurant space in Freeman. The building, located just a block off the main drag on Main Street and which was at one point the longtime home of the local VFW post, had become available after another restaurant occupying the building closed its doors.
Researching her options, she realized it would be difficult to both purchase the building and start a new business at the same time, so she worked out an agreement with a local realtor to rent the space. She said that made the difference in allowing her to move forward.
“Christa Helma was the realtor on this. When I looked at it and started my proposals and started the process, it was hard to open the business and buy the building,” Duffel said. “So she and her husband bought the building and I rent from them now with hopefully an option to buy down the line.”
They all went to work updating the interior, removing the false ceiling to open up the room, taking out carpet and installing a hard flooring surface and just generally tidying up the place. After about a year of sitting empty, it needed a little spit and polish.
“We had to do a lot of work. We tore out the ceiling. There was carpeting on the floor and we tore that up. And the building sat empty for a year, so for the most part it was just mainly cleaning,” Duffel said. “It worked out great.”
The restaurant has been open since December, and so far she said the reception from the community has been positive. Despite still finding her footing in terms of schedules and menu, the resurrection of the restaurant has brought customers to her door even over the holidays and through the harsh South Dakota winter season.
She serves a variety of items, ranging from specialty burgers like the Porky Burger, which includes barbecue pork along with such fare as the southwestern grilled cheese sandwich, which she noted has been one of the more popular orders. Appetizers, soups and salads are also on the menu, along with broasted chicken and a selection of seafood items.
The BrickHouse Lounge is open six days a week, with hours of 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and a buffet-only menu on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The restaurant is closed Mondays.
She may be new to being the top boss at a restaurant, but she draws on her previous experience in food service as well as her people skills from working in the retail and service industries to guide her. A friendly face and voice go a long way in making people feel at home, she said.
“Everything I’ve done in my career so far has built me up to this. Because you can’t talk to everybody the same way, and you can’t take every situation the same way,” Duffel said.
She said she has lucked out finding good help in a time when finding employees can be tricky. She is still looking to fill some positions, but having her husband, Delmas, two grown children, Andrew and Allysha, and additional staff on the job has helped ease the transition. It’s important to have solid help, and she said she’s blessed to have it.
“So far I’ve been lucky, (the employees) do really well. It makes a big difference,” Duffel said.
There have been lessons to learn and challenges to overcome, but so far she is pleased with the progress she has made. She incorporated daily specials, including menu items like roast beef on Wednesday and fare that appeals specifically to the German heritage of the Freeman community, such as cheese pockets.
The restaurant also has an outdoor seating area that hasn’t been used since she took over due to the winter weather. She has plans to add some games and other amusements to draw folks to the restaurant for their summer dining plans.
But it will remain a work in progress for at least a little while. She has only been open for a month, after all.
“I’ve done baby steps since I opened in December. Eventually I’d like to (also) do Saturday night specials with the salad bar, and I’m still looking for a Friday and Saturday night cook,” Duffel said. “I’m hoping in the summer I can open up and do stuff in that back area. My husband is going to make some beanbag games and we’ll make a little area where people can get some food and relax.”
She said she would take her time and adjust as she and her staff settle into their new surroundings. They have plenty of ideas for future improvements, but for now the plan is to soldier forward while listening to her patrons on what works and what doesn’t.
The customer is always right, after all.
“I’m trying to listen to the community, but no matter how much you want to, you can’t give them everything. So I’m listening to them and I’m not afraid to change. We’ll try something different if something doesn’t work.”
More information on the BrickHouse Lounge can be found at its Facebook page.