EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the final story in 2021 of a multiple-part series that highlights some of South Dakota's best small-town eateries. The Mitchell Republic plans to resume this series next summer.
WARD, S.D. -- The door swung open 15 minutes before the reservation.
“They start coming in as soon as it’s unlocked,” said Tom Kampmann, owner of the Feather’s Nest.
In walked four older folks to the Ward, S.D., restaurant, located one-half mile west of the Minnesota border. They drove about 45 minutes to hit up dinner in the eatery known for its large helpings, fresh salad bar and wonderful cuts of meat.
“Usually it’s so packed in here that you can’t get a seat,” said Roland Winter, of Lynd, Minnesota, justifying the early arrival with the other company at his table.
A Thursday in mid-August proved this small-town restaurant packs quite a punch, and it wasn’t even the famous prime rib night. Within 45 minutes of the doors opening, the main entrance area was full. By this time, Kampmann made himself comfortable next to the grill and his longtime manager Charity Kuehl was delightfully welcoming guests and taking orders (all by memory, of course.)
Feather’s Nest is located about 1 hour northeast of Sioux Falls and about 30 minutes southeast of Brookings. Ward’s proximity to Minnesota made the town’s restaurant a great destination in 2020.
Winter, his wife Shirley, and their friends Loryn and Alice Stelter, regularly trekked from south-central Minnesota to Feather’s Nest as the pandemic enforced strict restrictions on their regular food stops around Marshall, Minnesota.
“You’d see a lot of Minnesota cars here,” Loryn Stelter said.
But the Feather’s Nest has had a great reputation well before last year. It’s a little gem in a town that has a population of 54, with one car repair shop and a Lutheran church.
Kampmann, who has owned the business for 17 years, acknowledges that “we’re out here in the sticks.”
But he loves the work and he loves the small-town location.
For most of his life, he’s been working with food. His mother, Florence “Cookie” Kampmann was a restaurant owner for 22 years and one of the many life lessons she taught her son was that “it doesn’t matter where you’re located. If you treat them right, they’ll come.”
Kampmann picked up his first job washing dishes for $1 an hour about 47 years ago.
Now, he’s the head cook and only shares space at the grill with Ben, his son, one of his four children, all of whom have worked under him.
“You either are in the restaurant business or you’re not, because it’s worse than milking cows,” Kampmann said. “Cows don’t have the public to b**** at you.”
And while Kampmann is the key to pleasing his customers’ taste buds, Kuehl delivers smiles and makes the Feather’s Nest feel like home to the restaurant’s consumers. She’s basically a lifetime resident of Ward who has worked at the facility for the past 12 years. She also worked 15 years at the Hideaway, the name of the restaurant before Kampmann bought it and made it his own.
“I always tell everyone, ‘We sell a lot of everything,’” Kuehl said when asked to review the menu. “We have people who come here very often. You can put their order in when they come in because it never changes. But we do really sell a lot of everything on the menu.”
The submission to nominate the Feather’s Nest to be featured in the Battle of the Eats was really quite remarkable. The nominator, who knew the menu well, encouraged anyone who ventures to Ward to go hungry. “I mean really hungry,” the nomination form read. “Don't eat that day and train like a week prior by eating a big a** meal and then sitting in a car and driving for an hour or more.
“You want to get the ‘garbage plate.’ It's a KFC-sized bucket of fried cheese, veggies, wings, hot dogs and other various tasty heart attacks waiting to happen.”
The writer also referenced the “big honking slabs of meat. Meat the same size of the roast you put in the slow cooker on a Sunday during the winter to feed a family of four and have leftovers the rest of the week.”
Kampmann and Kuehl both just laughed when they read it. But the nomination was basically spot on after following most of its recommendations. The fully loaded hash browns with a mountain of cheese were too much for one sitting. The salad bar, with its homemade potato and macaroni salads, was perfectly fresh.
And the steak -- cooked medium-rare, of course -- was tender and tasteful. (The menu had a nice reminder, too: “Not responsible for steaks ordered well done.”) And, the honey butter on freshly made, warm bread rolls can make a gluten-free person break their diet.
The Feather’s Nest is open Wednesday and Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. It has a wide variety of beers, video lottery, but most importantly, it puts Ward on the map.