DE SOTO — Great River Roadhouse, best known for its large and tasty pizzas, is celebrating 25 years in business this year with new owners, Josh Petzel and Fawn Moats.
They bought the business last July from its founders, Dan and Colleen Knapek, who have retired but continue to live nearby.
Buying a restaurant in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic might seem unusual, but Petzel and Moats are glad they did it.
“I have a longstanding connection to the area,” Petzel said.
“My mom and her husband’s summer house is here” near De Soto. “And for the better part of 15 or 16 years, I had been coming down here pretty regularly on the motorcycle, primarily over Memorial Day, to visit. And we’ve made other trips here.”
Petzel and Moats enjoyed the restaurant’s pizza. While pizza is its biggest seller, the restaurant also is known for broasted chicken and ribs.
Petzel, Moats and their son Conrad moved to the De Soto area from Minneapolis to buy and operate the Great River Roadhouse.
“I’m a registered nurse and was in case management for a nonprofit hospice in Minneapolis,” Moats said.
“I was connected with the restaurant industry,” Petzel said. “I had my own firm where I was placing restaurant managers, hospitality managers, in resorts, casinos, hotels, restaurants. And I was also doing consulting work for bars and restaurants.”
“They’re both extremely hard workers,” Dan Knapek said of Petzel and Moats. “I think they’ll do quite well,” he said.
“I’m 71,” Knapek said, adding that he and his wife wanted to retire.
He said they opened the Great River Roadhouse in 1996, buying what had been a bar that spring, adding a kitchen and turning the business into a restaurant that began serving food that August.
“Pizza was the main thing,” Knapek said. “We started with a small menu with pizza, ribs, broasted chicken, specialty sandwiches and pastas.”
Take-out became a major part of the restaurant’s business after the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, Knapek said.
“More than a year ago, we started to talk about buying a bar and restaurant somewhere outside the Twin Cities,” Petzel recalled.
“We were looking for a change, looking to slow things down,” Moats added.
“We were looking at areas up by where her parents’ farm is, up in the Chippewa Falls area,” Petzel said. “I happened to be talking to my mom on the phone and mentioned that we were doing this. And she mentioned that the Roadhouse was for sale. I was familiar with it, knew it well and knew the food was good and that it was a sound business.
“COVID was just starting to come into the news a little bit” when he and Moats began talking to the Knapeks about buying the restaurant, Petzel said. “It was probably a week or two later, in the middle of March (2020) when the (restaurant) shutdowns came.”
Petzel and Moats decided to buy the restaurant, figuring they could weather the pandemic.
While the Great River Roadhouse offers both inside and outside dining, take-out sales still account for more than one-third of the restaurant’s sales.
Face masks are voluntary at the restaurant. “We accommodate people,” Petzel said. “If someone wants us to bring food out to their car, and process payment over the phone, we’re more than happy to do that.”
Petzel said sales so far have exceeded his expectations. And he predicted this will be a better year than 2020 was. “Obviously, vaccinations are up,” he said. “And people want to get out.”
Petzel said buying the Great River Roadhouse seemed like a good idea partly because it has a long history of success. “You don’t make it 25 years in the restaurant business without doing some things right,” he said. “It doesn’t happen by accident.”
“Dan and Colleen did a tremendous job with starting this business and growing it,” Moats said.
The restaurant has 20 to 25 employees, and finding employees has been challenging, Petzel acknowledged. “It’s bar none the biggest challenge in the industry,” he said.
Great River Roadhouse draws many of its customers from Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois.
Knapek said a business assessment done by a group of University of Wisconsin-La Crosse students found that the restaurant’s core market is roughly bounded by Holmen, Richland Center, Prairie du Chien and Decorah, Iowa.
Petzel and Moats continue to use the Knapeks’ recipes. The restaurant makes its own sauces and pizza dough, and adds its own seasonings to ground pork to make its sausage.
Its biggest-selling pizza is the Roadhouse Super, which is topped with cheese, sausage, mushrooms, onions, pepperoni, green peppers and black olives.
While it’s best know for pizza, broasted chicken and ribs, Great River Roadhouse also serves pastas and sandwiches. Its biggest-selling sandwiches are The Bomber — made with homemade Italian sausage, homemade tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, mushrooms and onions — and its hot ham and cheese sandwich. Its fish sandwich is the biggest-selling sandwich on Fridays.
The menu also includes appetizers, salads and sides.
The new owners have started a 50/50 Community Partner program that raises money for a different area organization each month. Half of the proceeds from sales of all-you-can-eat pasta on Sundays, and from a (pizza) Pie of the Month every day, go to the organization.