For the City Times
Submitted by Founder William Haack
While living in Kenosha County and working at Great Lakes Naval Base, I had many opportunities to visit the original American Heroes Café located in Festival of Foods. This project was run by two ladies, Mary Domes and Sharon Janusz, who served coffee and donuts to veterans on Fridays from 8 to noon. I could never figure out why more people in other communities didn’t latch onto this idea. I vowed to myself that if I moved up north after retirement, I would do something very similar.
The day of retirement came and went until finally my wife said “you know, I wouldn’t mind moving back up north”. I immediately started looking for houses in the Wisconsin Rapids area. In December of 2014 we closed and moved into a nice home in Nekoosa, 8 miles from Rapids. Once all the moving was done and we settled in for the long haul, I knew it was time to put my plan into action.
My priority was to find a place where we could operate the Café. I estimated that I would need a space large enough to accommodate 30-40 people. None of the local grocery stores had a space that large that they could do without for a few hours once a week. Eventually my search lead me to the Lowell Senior Center and Ms. Joan Kranig. After I explained my plan to her, we agreed that the Briehm Room in the Center would serve the purpose on Wednesday mornings.
Next on the agenda was to find sponsors and suppliers. I wrote letters to local businesses soliciting donations. Soon the checks started to come in and we settled on a Grand Opening of Sept. 23, 2015. To increase our potential clientele, we included police, fire, corrections and EMT personnel.
About two weeks before we were to open, I received a call from a local grocery store to come pick-up my coffee. I didn’t know what he was talking about until he explained that they had received a call from St. Peters, MO and payment for 12 cans of regular and 12 cans of decaf coffee. A shipmate from 1965 had found the newspaper article on the internet and wanted to help. This got us off to a great start.
Opening day was Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015 and it was kicked off by the two wonderful ladies from Kenosha, Sharon & Mary, cutting the ribbon on the door. Fifty-four people shared coffee and donuts with us on that first day and we were off to a great start. The next two weeks saw the numbers go down slightly to average 30-40 which is what I expected. The fourth week saw a major uptick to over 60 and we have steadily increased a little at a time since then.
Over the course of the next year we entertained many VIP’s including a U.S. senator, 2 state senators, the mayor, 3 police chiefs, fire chief and many other local officials. Our biggest honor was the fact that we were able to host Wisconsin’s only two living Medal-of-Honor recipients, Gary Wetzel and Kenneth Stumpf.
Thru a mutual agreement with the Material Girls local quilting group, 48 local veterans have received their Quilts of Valor during ceremonies at the Café. Turnouts at these ceremonies has always been great. Local community access TV has covered them all and so has a station from Rhinelander.
On Nov. 2, 2016 a Veterans Expo was held at the Woodlands Church. The Café participated and we served over 160 people that day. This was also the day that we made our permanent move to the Woodlands Church as we had outgrown our room at the Lowell Center. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that we would average over 100 people a week.
The support of the local community has been fantastic. I receive monetary donations as well as several local people donating food items. Ocean Spray donates 15 cases of juice each quarter. Graces Restaurant, across the parking lot from the church, brings over serving pans of eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, biscuits and gravy. Several people bring in cookies, hard boiled eggs, brownies, Rice Crispy treats and other food items. Mike Clark of Minneapolis sends me 30 pounds of Caribou Coffee beans 2-3 times a year. I certainly hope he doesn’t stop because my clientele will probably throw things at me if we go back to regular store-bought coffee.
All in all, this has been a tremendous success and I would like to see this spread throughout Wisconsin.