Minneapolis has its Black Forest Inn and St. Paul has its Mickey’s Diner. But Anoka is home to Sparky’s Cafe and after 30 years of trumping some rocky times, a stranger can still walk into the cozy cafe and walk out well-fed – and a friend of owner Jack Sparks.
Most every morning finds the jovial Sparks behind a sizzling hot grill, cooking up dozens of pancakes and hash browns at his quaint restaurant located at the corner of First Avenue South and Monroe Street.
Sparks emerges from time to time to greet customers by name. Even those who have visited just once before.
“I never thought I’d be here for 30 years,” said Sparks, 58, punctuated with his trademark laugh. “Really. It’s just a blessing. It’s going to sound corny, but I have to thank God for it.”
Still, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the gregarious Sparks. Throughout the years, his business has nose-dived during recessions. A nearby electrical fire at Anoka’s Bridge Square Mall, where the cafe is located, closed Sparky’s for three months in 1993.
In the early 1980s, Sparks came within two weeks of closing for lack of finances. But divine providence always seemed to step in, Sparks said.
While others are sleeping, Sparks is just starting his day. Six days a week – he takes Sundays off – he arrives at work at 3 a.m. That’s when he starts the rolls and soups. By 5 a.m., he’s open for business. He used to work 75 hours a week, but has whittled down his hours.
After so many years in the business, Sparks decided he wanted some time off to play golf with his buddies.
“I feel like I’m on vacation because I’m working 50 hours a week,” he said.
Ask Sparks to describe his cafe and he doesn’t mince words.
“In all honesty, it’s a greasy spoon,” he says. Laughter follows.
But a visit to Sparky’s finds customers chatting away, amid the cacophony of clanking dishes and the din of conversation, sprinkled with laughter. A familiar aroma reminiscent of mom’s home cooking permeates the communal gathering spot.
Customers are enjoying made-from-scratch American fare. Cheeseburgers, chicken wild rice soup, real mashed potatoes and BLT sandwiches, to name a few menu items.
Sparks’ customers are residents from the three high rises nearby, area retirees, regulars, families, a place where the locals hang out. In better economic times, a myriad of construction workers found their way to Sparky’s.
“He’s the best guy in the world. He remembers you,” said Gary Greb of Ramsey, who stopped by last week for breakfast with his coworker buddies from Menards. Greb has been eating at Sparky’s for about 15 years now. It’s become a family tradition.
“I’ve never had a bad meal here – ever,” Greb said.
Patty and Wayne Hunt of Anoka are regulars at Sparky’s.
“If you want to know what’s going on in Anoka, this is where you want to come,” said Wayne. “I jokingly call him mom every time I leave because he cooks so good.”
Patty is a second-generation diner at Sparky’s. Her mother was one of his first customers, she says.
Kate and Paul Talbot have been customers ever since the cafe first opened. They bring their kids to Sparky’s and their kids bring their friends.
“It’s just like home,” Kate said.
A step into Sparky’s is a step back in time, circa the 1960s. The place is decorated in earth tones, browns and tans. Wainscoting lines some of the walls. The brownish laminate tables and booths, with a seating capacity of 75 on the main floor, match the earthy colors of the black and brown carpeting.
A wall near a staircase, just to the right of the entrance, is painted in barn red. During the weekends or particularly busy times Sparks opens the upstairs area, which comfortably seats 25 diners.
An old-style ice cream freezer case, reminiscent of the 1950s where waitresses can easily dip their scoops into round-shaped containers, is situated near a small counter that seats two.
Hand printed signs announcing cinnamon and caramel rolls for $2 and cheesecake for $2.25 are posted in the center of the dining room.
‘A fun place to work’
Judy Greeninger of Coon Rapids stopped at Sparky’s for lunch one day. She looked around and thought to herself, “Hmmm, this looks like a fun place to work.”
Are there any openings? she asked Sparks. He hired her on the spot. That was nearly 25 years ago.
Today finds Greeninger zipping around the cafe in her soft-soled shoes, navigating tables, delivering blueberry pancakes and skillet breakfasts, some of Sparky’s favorites, to hungry diners.
“I just enjoy going to work there every day,” Greeninger said.
Joanie Akers of Zimmerman has waitressed at Sparky’s for 22 years. She just might hold the reason for the cafe’s longevity in a business that sometimes goes dark almost as fast as it opens.
The quality of food, the prices and good-sized portions, she says. Especially, a particularly popular breakfast item. Sparky’s gigantic pancakes that cover an entire platter.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, a manhole cover! That’s not a pancake!’” Akers said.
Akers likes the camaraderie the waitresses share. They talk and laugh freely while they work. Employee turnover is a rarity.
“You can always hear Jack laughing throughout the restaurant,” she said. “It’s just a neat place to be.”
Sparky’s employs 18 workers, eight of whom are full-time, including cooks, servers and dishwashers.
Nearly every day at 11 a.m. Lois and Blaine Edmundson of Anoka make their way from their home to Sparky’s.
They’ve been customers for nearly 25 years. Now in their retirement, about 90 percent of their days they lunch at the cafe.
“It’s just a lovely place,” Lois said. “We can get what we want. Plus, Jack is very nice, and we like the waitresses.”
“It’s clean, it’s friendly, it’s comfortable and the food is good. And the prices are reasonable.”
Structurally, the cafe space, which Sparks leases, has undergone some changes.
Since it opened, the business has expanded from 2,000 square feet to 3,000 square feet. The wall of what was once an insurance office in the mall was knocked down and has given way to what is now Sparky’s kitchen.
A beauty salon and tanning beds business was located upstairs. Sparks tore down his upstairs office and added a stairway near what is now the main entrance.
In 1981, he converted the upstairs area into a video game spot for teens. They paid 25 cents a game to play Pac Man, Frogger, Supercopter. The first week it opened, the games, which he leased, brought in about $1,200 a week. Sparks kept $600. The video leasing company got the other half.
“It paid my wages that first year,” Sparks said.
But in 1987, the Nintendo craze swept the game business out of Sparky’s. He later opened his upstairs area to overflow diners.
About 15 years ago, Sparks closed off his main entrance on First Avenue. Now, customers enter through the mall door.
“It got too cold during winter,” Sparks said.
His plans were to teach
Originally, Sparks had planned to be an elementary school teacher. But when he graduated from what was then the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul in 1976, teaching jobs were scarce – about 200 applicants per job opening.
A transplant from Rockford, Ill., Sparks worked his way through school waiting tables for Sam and Len Burstein at their Minneapolis deli, the Brothers. They saw promise in the young Sparks. He was promptly promoted to manager, where he learned his restaurant skills, including how to cook. By 1979, Sparks was managing three Brothers delicatessens.
Sparky’s opened its doors Oct. 31, 1981, as Hollywood Pizza. Start-up costs were $20,000. Sparks took out a $10,000 loan on his house at a 21 percent interest rate. A former partner matched the $10,000. A year later, Sparks bought him out.
Three years down the road, Domino’s Pizza, Pizza Hut and Little Caesars Pizza moved into the area, cutting into Hollywood’s market share.
In 1984, Hollywood Pizza became Sparky’s Hollywood Cafe.
“It was a tough transition because I was known for pizza,” Sparks said. “We were really teetering – really close to going under.
But by happenstance, Cully’s, the restaurant across the street closed. A waitress, Marilyn Sawyer, who had been working there for about 15 years was out of a job. Sparks stepped up to the plate. He asked her to stop in and see him.
“I might not be around in two more weeks,” he told her as a caveat.
Still, she met with Sparks anyway. She was hired immediately.
Sawyer’s loyal customers followed her to Sparky’s.
The first Monday she worked, Sparks did $300 in breakfasts, rather than the usual $80 to $100 take.
In 1989, Sparks dropped the Hollywood in his name and the place became known as Sparky’s Cafe.
After 9/11 his business took a dive. In 2004, business picked up, peaking until 2009 when it once again took a downturn. Sparks took out a $30,000 loan to make ends meet.
But business has rebounded and the loans are paid off, Sparks said. Last year the cafe netted between $30,000 and $40,000 dollars, Sparks said.
Sparks is a resident of Blaine and is married to Kathy, his wife of 25 years. They have two adult children John and Patrick.
Looking back at his time as an Anoka restaurateur, Sparks is thankful to his customers who have supported him throughout the years.
Sparky’s, once a pizza shop long ago, has become a popular dining destination. It has become a part of Anoka’s fabric, a gathering place that could have folded two or three times over three decades, but somehow managed to emerge unscathed and to endure. Sparky’s continues to attract an old and new generation of customers.
“I am here because this is where God wants me,” Sparks said.
American fare, home-cooked food
Hours: Monday through Friday, 5 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, 5 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sundat, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
12 Bridge Square, Suite 105
Bridge Square Mall, Anoka
One block off Main St., corner of First Avenue South and Monroe Street.
Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]