EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth 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.
MOUNT VERNON — Sisters Sandy Hetland and Cindi Nitz and their staff at Wermers’ Lounge in Mount Vernon know what you’ll order before you step foot in their door.
“It’s nice knowing all your customers. You have the same ones and they order the same things about every week,” Hetland said. “When people walk in, (the staff) can tell you what they're gonna have — drinking or eating.”
Knowing almost every customer to enter Wermers’ didn’t happen overnight — it stems from over five decades of ownership by their family.
What’s known today as Wermers’ has come a long way since Hetland and Nitz's uncle, Lloyd Wermers, purchased the property on the city’s Main Street and opened M+L Lounge back in 1965 — named after himself and his wife Mavis.
"It’s all one big family over there. They get to know you, and it’s just like eating at home."
- Jerry Rubendall, longtime guest
The gathering hole began as just a bar for the town’s population of under 400 at the time. Renovations in the early 1970s doubled the size of the building and added a stage for bands to play live music on the weekends.
But after Lloyd’s death in 1975, his brother and sister-in-law, Bussy and Shirley Wermers, took over the bar and renamed it Wermers’ Lounge in the family's honor.
Nitz said that as time went on, the idea of having live music became too expensive and didn’t seem sustainable, so the lounge purchased a chicken broaster to offer something new.
When the chicken became popular, guests began asking for hamburgers — so the lounge accommodated and purchased a small grill.
When the burgers became popular, customers began asking for steak, so the lounge installed a larger grill and expanded the kitchen.
The menu at the lounge isn’t huge — it’s limited to a handful of sandwiches and burgers, a couple fish and steak options and a few others — and that’s for good reason. The ribeye is by far the most popular menu item at Wermers’, amassing rave reviews from guests.
“I’ve lived in Arizona, California, Texas, Colorado… and this is still the best steak that I’ve ever had,” said Ryan Youngstrom, a customer of Wermers’ since the '70s. “It doesn’t matter the price — I’ve spent a lot more on a steak, but spending a lot more doesn’t mean that you’re going to get a better cut.”
Londa Youngstrom, Ryan’s wife, added that they never order steak at any restaurant except for Wermers’.
“Several restaurants we go to, it’s always ‘eh, something besides the steak,’” Londa said. “We have been coming here for at least 20 years and recommend it to everyone.”
Under Bussy’s ownership, the restaurant began offering prime rib on Saturday nights, another highly successful tactic to draw in and retain customers.
“We’ve been to a lot of places for suppers, and we go to different towns, different states, different countries, and we always compare it to Wermers’,” said Matt Baker, a guest of Wermers’ since he was 10. “It’s never above the prime rib.”
Matt and his wife Jolene Baker said they order the prime rib every Saturday, but they don’t have to make excuses to come in and eat on other days.
“We order from Wermers’ a lot. If it’s somebody’s birthday we’ll come in and eat, or if it’s noon today I’ll come in and eat,” Matt said through a laugh, admitting he was eating there for his second meal that day.
Hetland and Nitz claim there is no secret to how they make their steaks, but acknowledge that the rave reviews must be true.
“Everyone will say ours tastes the best,” Hetland said. “I don't know how we could be any different, but it must be good.”
Customers say their raves about Wermer’s goes beyond just the food. The environment created by staff is also a big part of what keeps them coming back.
The restaurant’s deep community and familial roots create an environment so comfortable, some guests forget they are eating out.
“It’s all one big family over there,” said Jerry Rubendall, a friend of Bussy. “They get to know you, and it’s just like eating at home.”
Jerry and Kay Rubendall, his wife, said they traveled from Mitchell to eat at Wermer’s once or twice a week for “many, many years,” and rave about how accommodating the staff is, noting the staff will get you your order (even if it’s not on the menu) quickly, no matter how busy they are.
“Last weekend, I’d say they had well over 100 people that they waited on… and we had our dinner in 25 minutes,” Kay said. “Amazing. Who else could cover a restaurant like that?”
The restaurant sees patrons from all across South Dakota, and even pulls in tourists from across the country based strictly on word of mouth.
“Just today we had a couple from San Diego come in for dinner because the campground they’re at recommended it,” Hetland said.
Hunters visiting from outside the area even make reservations for opening day a year in advance.
Three generations of the Wermers’ family currently work in the restaurant, including Hetland’s daughter and grandson, but Hetland and Nitz agreed that all of the staff and guests feel like one big family.
“I think about it when I go somewhere to eat in Sioux Falls, nobody really knows you, but here we’ve had people we've known all our lives that are customers that have come in to eat,” Nitz said. “That mutual trust and respect with the community means a lot."
Hetland and Nitz have been considering what the future holds for the lounge, as the work of a restaurant is wearing.
“That kind of business is hard on you because it's a lot of hours, and not so good hours,” Nitz said. “Day and night, six days a week, and some people would like you to be there on Sundays, but you can only do so much.”
Hetland said the job has been tough on her, too.
“I’d like to be here yet, but I can’t go on a lot of years,” Hetland said. "I’d hate to see it go out of the family.”
Despite the Hetland and Nitz’s concerns, Wermers’ has no plans of closing their doors any time soon.