A North Side staple is closing its doors after almost seven decades in La Crosse.
Maid-Rite owner Dick Beilke said the diner at 1119 Caledonia St. would close for the last time at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. Beilke bought the business 26 years ago from Bob Allen, who owned the La Crosse location, which first opened in 1947. Beilke informed his five employees of the decision to close on Monday.
The word got out, and the small dining room was filled Tuesday afternoon with customers looking to grab one last sandwich. According to the company’s website, there is no other Maid-Rite within more than 50 miles after an Onalaska location closed its doors in 2010 after only a short time in business.
Almost all of the 30 or so seats were full Tuesday afternoon as Beilke, 84, spoke of his reasons for closing, which include his age, health reasons and some personal financial difficulties. A Chrysler employee for 25 years, Beilke moved to La Crosse and bought the local Maid-Rite after an early retirement from the auto manufacturer.
A farm kid, Beilke said he grew up on Maid-Rite sandwiches in the 1930s, with Beilke and his father stopping to eat the famous loose-meat sandwiches during weekend trips from their farm to visit his grandmother in Rockford, Ill. This was during the Great Depression, when the luxury of going out to eat wasn’t a reality for most Americans.
“You could get a Maid-Rite and a malt for a quarter,” he said. “That was pure living back then during the Depression.”
Beilke said he has worked hard to keep the La Crosse Maid-Rite authentic to its roots, leaving many of the old fixtures in place and refusing to touch the recipes even as the Maid-Rite franchise, which is headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, has made changes to its menu. The La Crosse location still offered the classic Maid-Rite sandwiches, as well as breakfast and dinner options, such as chicken a la king.
“The North Side is a real meat-and-potatoes area,” he said. “You can’t get too fancy, and we’ve stayed with the basics.”
A fan of the railroads, he personally selected local railway memorabilia to cover the walls of the cozy diner, which has a handful of booths and a counter surrounding the island where the special cut, grind and spice of meat is made and served to customers. The railroad anchored the North Side in the past, and he said many railroad company veterans are regulars at the diner.
When customers heard of the Maid-Rite closing, many offered to help, Beilke said, but he didn’t feel right being in their debt. The future of the business is uncertain, he said, and he didn’t know whether he would sell or if it would remain a Maid-Rite due to the contractual obligations the parent company would have to a potential new owner.
Beilke has worked with some of the restaurant’s employees for decades, and they have shared in each other’s triumphs and trials. Beilke hand-delivered a get-well card to one of his employees after heart surgery in 2007, and employees have worked there for decades, raising their kids on the North Side.
“My God, it’s like a great big family,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
Angie LaFleur, a Holmen resident who grew up on the North Side, stopped Tuesday for one last lunch at the restaurant and to grab a five-pound takeout order of the Maid-Rite meat, which she would serve at Thanksgiving.
It will be tough losing one of the historic anchors to the neighborhood, she said, as everyone visited the restaurant and its neighbor, the Sweet Shop. It’s where everyone came together to chat, share news or read the paper.
Lindsey Hartley, a French Island resident, and her friend Victoria Cunningham of Garnett, Kan., stopped by after they learned it was closing. Hartley grew up eating Maid-Rite sandwiches with her grandfather, who she had invited to come out one last time, while Cunningham was enjoying her first visit to one of the restaurants.
Hartley went to school just down the street from the restaurant, which was always a special treat for the family to visit. Cunningham said she was sad her first visit would also be her last, as you just don’t see places like it in America anymore.
“It’s a shame this is happening to a place with such good food,” she said. “It makes me so sad.”