Most Saturday mornings in the early 1970s, a friend and I would amble past the Dairy Mart at the south end of the wooden North Hudson bridge, up the hill under the graffiti-covered railroad bridge, and to the 1903 Carnegie library on Third and Locust. Then it was on to downtown for a compulsory visit to Olson’s Department Store or Bertelsen’s to peruse the latest merchandise.
The day’s cap was a stop at Ben Franklin’s for penny candy and 10-cent popcorn, and then, with popcorn in hand, over to Dibbo’s Café for a soft drink. A mouthful of munch turned into a chemistry experiment with a sip of fizzy fountain cola. If we had more money to spend, then banana crème pie or hot chocolate was in order.
Sitting on the vinyl-covered stools in the front of the café, we’d watch town folk come and go. We might say hi to a kid from school with his or her parents or chat with other kids, who, like us, were downtown for the day.
The smell from platters of ham and eggs, hash browns, and toast wafted by while coffee and cigarette odors also competed for air time. Occasionally, someone would order an early lunch: a steaming hot beef sandwich framing a mound of mashed potatoes smothered in gravy with the vegetable of the day on the side.
Good old American home-style cooking. You could get it at Dibbo’s, or if up on the hill, at Grouchy’s. Grouchy’s Café was more uptown, though, with the frontage road and the Interstate out the window and the colossus waiter sign beckoning folks from the freeway. Dibbo’s just seemed more down-home, downtown.
Fast food in town back then was nonexistent, except for the Dairy Mart and Dairy Queen plus the A&W on Hudson's hill. Hardee’s arrived sometime in the early 1980s, and other chains such as Country Kitchen and Perkins quickly populated the hill.
A hometown café with a big heart
An explosion of restaurant choices coupled with other factors has made the hometown café an endangered species across America, and sadly, here in Hudson. Dibbo’s Café served its last customer on Saturday, March 19.
Owned by Vic and Bertha Fenner since 1956, Dibbo's hotel-café establishment was named for a previous owner, Robert “Dibbo” Means, who sold it in 1953 to Henry and LaRoi Westin, who in turn sold it three years later to the Fenners, according to a recent article on the closing in the Hudson Star-Observer and Dibbo’s website. In the 1960s they launched Dibbo’s nightclub in the big back room, which, with the boarding-house-style hotel, remains open. Vic died in 2002, and Bertha retired in 2009.
The café was a longtime landmark for locals and visitors alike.
“I’m thankful for the café having been here as long as it had,” said Bill Radosevich, a regular for at least 25 years whose law office is across the street.
As one of many breakfast clubbers who met there, Radosevich had his last morning meal at the café on Saturday.
“It was just good home cooking,” he said, of the menu of hot beef, meatloaf, burgers, lasagna, breakfast, pies and jams. “It was like a pre-Facebook community type of thing … you’d go there share info across the table, learn what was new or what was going on.”
Radosevich met former Hudson newspaper publisher and historian Willis Miller there at 9 a.m.—a weekday ritual. After Miller’s death in 2008, their breakfast group lit a candle on their table in his memory every day for a year.
“It wasn’t unusual for people from out of town and out of state to stop by and visit because of Willis and his knowledge of Hudson history,” recalled Radosevich. “If someone stopped at the newspaper between 9 and 10 looking for Willis, the staff would send them down to Dibbo’s. We always met a lot of interesting people that way.
“Willis was the mainstay, and he always would say, ‘Bill, what do you think is going to happen to this place?’ He was very concerned for the owners, their employees and the community, knowing that someday there would be change.”
That sense of community also was shared by Bertha, who operated the café until retiring and leaving the apron strings to longtime employee Roxann Kopp.
“Few people know about the free meals and assistance that over the course of many years Bertha gave to people who were in need of a hot meal,” Radosevich said. “Churches would send them down. She was a one-person social-service agency and had a tremendous heart, always helping people. Her door was always open.”
Radosevich said there was a good turnout of regulars at the café’s last day.
“I understand a group of boaters who were summer regulars came out for a last hurrah,” he said
Nightclub nights remain
As I grew older, the nightclub served up more memories for me, like when scores of 18-year-olds from Minnesota came to Dibbo’s for the lower drinking age in Wisconsin. I imbibed in a few 2-for-1 and 3-for-1 beverage specials while listening to Twin Cities bands such as Chameleon, which back then had Yanni, now of some international recording fame, on keyboards. Most recently, my husband and I heard national recording artists The Smithereens in an impromptu concert at Dibbo's when rain canceled their charity gig at the Lakefront Park bandshell.
Mention Hudson to almost any Twin Cities resident of that era, and “Dibbo’s Banana Night,” is the response, when a banana got you into the club in lieu of cover charge on a Tuesday night. It is ostensible that those hundreds of bananas ended up in the café’s famous pie the next day.
The nightclub and residential hotel will continue operation by the Fenner’s daughters, Vicki Wilcoxson and Vanda McGee, and Vanda’s husband, Chuck. As a residential hotel—another endangered species in the story of American small business—Dibbo’s rents rooms by the month.
The reality of changing tastes, more mobile populations, economic downtowns and expanded consumer choice has unfortunately consigned many home-cooking cafés like Dibbo’s to the history books.
Kathryn Strand Koutsky and Linda Koutsky, in their book, Minnesota Eats Out (Minnesota Historical Society, 2003) write: “[the] cafés’ most endearing aspect was their pivotal role in the community. They thrived on local patronage—businessmen meeting over breakfast, family and friends gathering for lunch, students hanging out after school. … Old-fashioned home cooking was as important as the friendly camaraderie.”
The authors note that the café has not yet completely vanished off an ever-exploding menu of restaurant choices: “Many now offer expanded menus in modern café-style interiors, but the pot of coffee is always hot, and those seeking a friendly place, easy conversation and home cooking will probably still wind up at their local café.”
Indeed, consider yourself lucky if your community has one with a run as longstanding as the ‘Dibbo.’