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Menahga's Cottage House celebrates a decade

Cottage House chefs/owners Carol Waaraniemi, left, and Arlene Arvola will celebrate a decade as restaurateurs Friday by rolling back prices. (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)

A decade ago, the proverbial bee was placed in a bonnet, and Menahga area residents' taste buds have been happier ever since.

Dori Bunnell, a friend and original partner of Cottage House owners and sisters Carol Waaraniemi and Arlene Arvola, suggested the idea of starting a restaurant.

The trio worked together at the Menahga School kitchen, relishing the satisfaction of presenting tasty meals.

"We all three had a vision," Arlene said.

"We felt Menahga was in need of a good restaurant," Carol added.

On a cold February day, footings were dug. Five months later, June 1, the doors opened on the second block of Menahga's Main boulevard.

"The day we were going to open, it didn't look like we'd be open," Carol remembered of the last minute, madcap details yet to be attended.

"No booths were in place," Arlene recalled.

Initially, the restaurateurs were greeted with skepticism.

The premier morning, they arrived at 4:30 a.m. "By 5:30, people were lining up outside," Carol recalled. "They were excited for a new restaurant. Some thought we were crazy," she said. "They said it wouldn't fly. Restaurants come and go."

People who headed south for the winter came in the next spring "wondering if we'd still be here," Carol said. "But here we are, 10 years later."

"And we're here every day," Arlene said of their work schedule, with the exception of five holidays. "You have to like people.

"In the 10 years, we've never groaned, 'I have to go to work,'" Arlene said.

"We put in a long day," Carol said, which sometimes includes catering. The restaurant serves Sunday buffets and three meals a day, year 'round.

"We're going full steam," said Arlene, 67, who continues to work at the school, and Carol, 61. "She's my boss," Arlene jokes.

"You have to enjoy cooking," Carol said.

"We serve good food at reasonable prices," Arlene said, "with as much as possible from scratch."

The Cottage House features homemade flatbread, rolls, pasties and pies. They peel six bushels of apples in the fall, freezing them for winter pies. And homemade strawberry jam is in the pantry.

"And we pick our own rhubarb."

Their passion for cooking began as kids, growing up in a family of 13 children on a farm in the Wolf Lake hills. "It was a family-oriented operation," Carol said. "Everyone knew how to milk the cows." They began experimenting in the kitchen at age 10. At 12 it was time to start cooking a "full blown meal."

"We learned to multi-task," Carol said.

"If you can't work and chew gum, you're no good," Arlene joked. "It was a different era," she said. "We had the best life."

The food at the Cottage House reflects their upbringing. "We don't like to be complex," Arlene said. "We keep it basic and prices down."

The first summer was a training session. They had moved from cooking a single menu-item meal at the school to exponential possibilities in the course of a day at the restaurant.

"We learned a lot. Now we know the short cuts," Arlene said. "I have to reprogram my brain," she said of moving from the school and scout camp kitchen, where she works in the summers, to the cottage.

Friday, June 1, the dynamic duo will be celebrating a decade by offering food at the original prices.

"The locals have been good to us," Arlene said. "We hope to pay them back."

"This is to thank the customers. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for them," Carol said.