EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third of a multiple-part series that highlights some of South Dakota's best small-town eateries. These stories will run through the summer as tourists are traveling South Dakota, looking for places to stop and eat. Here's another story in the series showing the great eateries South Dakota has to offer.
WESSINGTON SPRINGS — Two Main Street eateries with nearly six decades of experience between them have made a lasting impression on food fans in Wessington Springs.
The Springs Inn Cafe has roots dating back to the late 1960s and has built a reputation of having homestyle meals at all times of day and the ability to host any type of gathering in its longtime restaurant building.
A block away on the other side of Main, Sweet Grass has emphasized creativity in its menu, bakery, coffee variety and the building’s decor itself, which has brought to life a downtown building in a new way.
While there is inevitably some competition for the customer’s dollar, they also represent the best of what Wessington Springs’ restaurants have to offer.
“You don’t have to leave Wessington Springs to get good food,” said Loree Gaikowski, the town’s chamber of commerce director who grew up in Springs. “For a town our size, we really do have this really rich culture where, it’s not just the food, it’s the atmosphere and the places where you have a great meal and you have a great experience, as well.”
And in both cases, a strong reputation makes them a destination for locals and those who are willing to make the drive to this town of fewer than 1,000 people.
“There’s a diverse group of people that will get out and support Main Street,” said Jon Niemeyer, who owns the Springs Inn with his wife, Carla. “If you’ve ever been in a little town without a decent place to eat, you understand what that means.”
The eateries are being featured as part of the newspaper’s Battle of the Eats series, which showcases favorite small-town diners and restaurants around South Dakota. (Additional profiles of restaurants will be featured regularly in the pages of the Mitchell Republic through August.)
Springs Inn: A community staple
The story of the Springs Inn for Jon and Carla Niemeyer can’t be told without knowing how it once closed for good.
Bill and Dolores Jacomet ran the cafe from 1967 to 1974, until Bill took a new job in Pierre and the family moved. Four years later, a group of Wessington Springs business owners called the family and asked them to move back to Springs to run the restaurant after it had closed.
Their daughter, Carla, spent those four years in Pierre working at The Happy Chef, where she met the cook, Jon, and they got married in 1980. Three months later, they moved to Wessington Springs and helped Dolores get the Springs Inn back up and running.
Over the past 40 years, the Niemeyers have answered every challenge the small-town restaurant business has thrown at them. In 1993, the restaurant was on the other side of Main Street when it was destroyed by a fire. Within a handful of days, the Niemeyers were across the street, carrying forward with the business.
There have also been times where the power has gone out in the city, and the Springs Inn has taken in residents for the night so they have a place to stay, along with serving locals in the aftermath of the 2014 tornado that blew through Wessington Springs.
The menu and specials can be “fly by the seat of your pants,” trying to accommodate families and parties of all sizes and shapes. Accommodating large groups, parties and special events is part of what Springs Inn has done for years, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. That makes for a busy balance of work and life.
“We usually find out we have a day off about five minutes ahead of time,” Jon Niemeyer said. “But we can usually be ready at the sound of a shotgun blast.”
On a recent visit, the Springs Inn special was what has become a local favorite: the meltdown burger, which includes a half-pound hamburger patty, three types of cheese and a zesty sauce on a bun. The cafe is also renowned for its fried chicken, its offerings on the lunch buffet and the breakfast options. It's adorned with hundreds of Coca-Cola collectibles, although the restaurant serves Pepsi, too.
“You can’t count the number of meetings and family gatherings and parties that they’ve had in that building,” Gaikowski said. “The Springs Inn is an absolute staple to this community.”
COVID-19 provided a defining time for the Springs Inn. Through phone orders and sending the meals out the building’s backdoor, the business chugged on. It sold take-and-bake pizzas, which became popular. Its relationship with seniors and the Avera Weskota Memorial Hospital and Weskota Manor nursing home was only made stronger, regularly delivering meals.
“There would be days where we’d just bring by cookies and we’d get a big smile,” Jon Niemeyer said. “And really, it does as much for us as it does for them, bringing joy to our lives by being able to help them.”
The pandemic was also challenging for the restaurant, with employees and servers wearing masks and then being harassed by locals for doing so, Niemeyer said. But he said he was proud of his staff for doing the right thing and later getting vaccinated when it was time.
“It’s been a challenge, it’s been exhilarating and it’s been exhausting,” he said. “But our staff absolutely did the right thing.”
Memorable meals at Sweet Grass
Heather Larson took the leap to Main Street in Wessington Springs with her own business nearly a decade ago. And there hasn’t been much looking back since.
Larson created the business after starting a catering and speciality cake operation out of her home. Since 2012, her business has been an upscale blending of modern coffee shop, bakery and restaurant, and Larson noted that each of those elements are important to making the business go. It also keeps Sweet Grass interesting for the customer and, as she admits, for Larson herself.
The menu changes based on the season, what is fresh and what Larson is in the mood to make or experiment with. She joked that sometimes she makes a dessert or a special entree and hopes it’s not a hit with customers because she’s not sure she can replicate it. That means the lunch special could be pasta one day, gyros the next, and a special sandwich on the third day, all from scratch.
“I just like trying new things and keeping the menu different, because that gives customers something new to try as well,” she said.
One recent lunch special that has stuck around is a chicken fillet sandwich, which Gaikowski noted was her favorite. It has drawn comparisons to popular national-chain chicken sandwiches, Larson said, and frequently pairs with a dill pickle pasta salad.
“It really has this big-city feel to it,” Gaikowski said of Sweet Grass. “It feels like you’re on Phillips Avenue (in Sioux Falls) and we have it in our little town.”
The Sweet Grass story is also defined by the building, which is more than 100 years old and has original tin ceilings, brick walls on the interior and exterior and historic glass features. Inside, there’s a trendy, rustic design, mostly sourced through items that Larson has found and saved. The building used to be a car dealership and a dance hall before that, but was dark and dingy before its renovation.
“I bug my husband because I like to save stuff,” Larson said. “But a lot of the interesting stuff I’ve saved has made it in here for decor.”
The business is open Monday-Saturday mornings until 2 p.m., and is open on Friday and Saturday nights, when the dinner menu is featured. Depending on the night and the season, there’s various steaks, burgers, sandwiches and fish on the menu.
Lately, she has featured locally raised Akaushi beef, which creates very tender and flavorful steak to popular results. Larson and her husband, Brad, live on a farm north of Springs and she worked for SDSU Extension in Mitchell as a cow-calf specialist before starting Sweet Grass. Finding that specialty of beef in South Dakota is uncommon but Larson puts it on the plate for local customers in Wessington Springs.
Customers have requests about how they might want their steak cooked, and Larson tries to provide advice on how to maximize flavors and taste. How frequently does a customer take her advice?
“More often than not, they take it,” Larson said. “And they usually appreciate how it tastes and that I helped them have a great experience.”
Larson is also proud that the products she serves are often locally sourced. She estimates that about 75 percent of the products come from the local grocery store across the street, the Springs Food Market. The other 25 percent, she estimates, comes from local farmers. On the day of a recent visit, she purchased cucumbers and eggs from a producer, with plans to use them in upcoming salads and entrees.
Sweet Grass also has a number of freshly baked breads, pies, cookies and bars, while also making jams, salsas and teas. Larson sells a number of the rubs and seasonings she uses for meals, as well.
There’s a lot of options, all of them rich with flavor and creativity. Larson wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I want Sweet Grass to be an experience and something that people will really enjoy,” she said. “You want to provide something that they will remember.”