Dave Forette, longtime owner of the Millstone in Milbank, has sold the restaurant. How long has Dave been in the restaurant business? “Forever,” he jokes. “My whole life. It will be 40 years this coming summer. I started at the Country Kitchen in Sisseton when I was 15. The math says 40 years.”
And it’s no joke you need to be fairly proficient at math if you run a restaurant. For 22 years, Dave has been pumping out breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “It’s a crazy busy place,” he says, “We served 110,000 meals last year including in-store visits and to-go orders.”
“We go through gallons of chicken Alfredo and a ton of eggs – 1,250 eggs a week and that’s not counting the buffet eggs. We use about 90 pounds of bacon and probably 80 pounds of sausage. We serve hundreds of burgers a week.” He just rolls his eyes at the astronomical amount of coffee patrons sip on. ”Pounds, and pounds, and pounds,” he says. But that’s the kind of place Dave has worked to create all these years. A place with down-home good food, where you can fill your tank without breaking the bank, and run into a few of your neighbors and friends. Maybe even indulge in a little strawberry shortcake, the restaurant’s most popular treat from the dessert case.
People must have been drawn to the casual ambiance and the hearty food from the beginning, because from the day Dave opened the doors, they flocked in and kept coming back.
“Kenny Morris was always my first customer every single day for the first 15 years,” Dave recalls. “We have several customers who started coming in 22 years ago, and are still coming in.” But, do they continue to order the same thing? “Yep! Breakfast. When I see them coming, I start making their breakfast because I know what they’re going to have. Another group comes in every day at seven o’clock. Unfortunately, over the years, we’ve also lost some customers. One passed away right here around the coffee counter. Suffered a heart attack.”
Many of the customers who have been with him for the long haul have witnessed Dave working 60 to 70 hours a week. But he makes it crystal clear, he did not get to where he is on his own. His family and his staff helped make it happen. I have an amazing crew now and I’ve had amazing crews over the years. I’m blessed. A lot of that has to do with my kids and my nieces and nephews – all my family really.”
In the early days on Sundays, everybody seemed to be related. And we would have 16 employees there that day. My wife, Sheri; my brother Jimmy and his wife, Lisa; Eric and Jesse Forrette; the Sinclair twins; and my daughters, Brittney and Ashley. Sometimes Geoff “Goof” Benson was the only worker in the place on a Sunday that wasn’t family.”
“Jimmy, Lisa, and I worked together every Saturday and Sunday for probably the first five years, unless one of us needed to be gone for something really, really important.”
“My kids worked their butts off here, too. Ben spent nine or 10 years at home as an only child. He started at the restaurant when he was 11 or 12. Brittany is still helping me. She manages the website and does some menu work. I bought out Jimmy and Lisa on January 1, 2019, but for the first 19 years, they were a big part of it. There’s nothing like a family business.
A lot of people don’t know that Sheri was employed at Larson Manufacturing in the IT department in Brookings for 28 years. They thought she was just a stay-at-home mom that worked for me on the weekends. Well, that wasn’t the case.
Three of my employees have been along for this entire ride, too – Kim Peschong, Lisa Forrette, and Cindy Larson. Cindy started about a week after I bought the place. Kim and Lisa were here when I got here. Lisa ran the front of the house for years and years. When we bought out Jimmy and Lisa, she went to work full time at the school. But, she’s continued to come in when we need her. She’s a godsend when Kim is gone because she just walks in and takes over. And that’s the way Sheri used to be on the weekends, too. If somebody needed to be gone, she was here.
One of the best decisions I ever made was making Kim a partner in 2016. She owned 10 percent, but she’s being bought out now, too. She plans to be around for part of the summer, though.”
The kitchen hides people with a lot of experience, too. Dave calculated, “There’s gotta be a hundred years back there if you add it up because I’ve got 40 and Liz Trapp (nee Peschong —Kim’s sister) has been here for 16 or 17 years. I’ve got two full-timers that have been here eight or nine years, and a few others with five or six. You can get to a hundred years easy in the kitchen. Not a lot of people in the restaurant business can say that. And just because someone hasn’t been here that long doesn’t mean they aren’t amazing. Our service has always been top notch. I haven’t had a lot to do with that. That’s all been the girls out front.
One thing that has changed over the years, he says, is the way people relate to food. “It seems like the Food Network has influenced people’s palate and the idea of what a restaurant can do. The orders seem to get crazier every day. Very few people just stick to the menu. In all honesty, it makes it difficult in the kitchen to keep up and not make mistakes. Sometimes, it gets a little bit frustrating.
Ten years ago the only requests you’d see would be crispy bacon or dry toast. Now it’s none of this, none of that, substitute this, substitute that. I call it The Food Network effect. But he says, “I watch a lot of Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Some of my menu ideas come from him. I’m not going to lie, I just flat out steal them and make each one my own. But, if they put them on TV, I figure they’re fair game.
He says he usually spends six or seven hours each day running a grill, and then he does the office work. I have to sign checks and pay bills, do schedules, and deal with vendors and advertisers. Everybody does their job and I just run the show.
His work kept him pretty busy, but somehow he managed to sandwich in serving eight years as a Grant County Commissioner. A lot of that time he was involved in economic development and planning and zoning. He says, “I usually had to find other ways to give back to the community and the school and that meant monetary donations or donations of food.”
What’s kept him up nights over the last 22 years? “Bank loans,” he says with a laugh. “Big catering jobs. I wouldn’t get much sleep the night before a big catering job. And, I don’t think I slept more than two hours a night when we remodeled in 2016. I kept tossing and turning. When you’re spending all that money and you don’t have any coming in, it’s kind of tough to sleep at night.”
What was the worst advice you ever received? “When my brother said, ‘Hey, let’s buy the Millstone.” What’s the best advice you ever received? “When my brother said, ‘Hey, let’s buy the Millstone,’” he says and laughs his signature Dave Forette laugh.
“No, seriously. I enjoyed it all. I still enjoy coming to work every day. It will be a little strange on the 31st of March when I open that back door for the last time. I’m not going to lie. It’s hard. It’s emotional. I’m leaving one of the best crews I’ve ever had in my life. And I’ve had a lot of crews over the years.”
‘And now everything’s done. All the equipment’s updated. The electrical and plumbing are updated. Everything’s been redone and now I will be leaving. But, that’s o.k. This has been Sheri’s and my plan our entire life.’
And it’s not like I’m going to be completely retired. On June 15, 2020, Sheri bought the Lucky Dog in Volga, and our son, Ben, has been running the kitchen and doing a fantastic job. He basically grew up here at the Millstone and I remember when Sheri was driving back and forth to Brookings, she would drop Ben at the restaurant early in the morning and later I would give him a ride to school. He sat at the counter having breakfast with Max Gonzenbach and Rudy Nef. They taught him to shoot dice and a million other things. He learned a lot from them. Now, Ben and his wife, Courtney, are about to have a baby. So, I’m expected to be in to Volga to help when I’m done here. Sheri worked here 22 years for free so it’s Payback Time!
My work week, though, will drop to around 25 to 30 hours. The Lucky Dog is a smaller establishment and we don’t cater. Not such high volumes. So it should be a bit of a vacation. I’ll be somewhat semi-retired.
Hopefully, I’ll be eating more than one meal a day like I do here, ” he says with a laugh “I never have time to eat. Believe it or not, I owned two restaurants and I didn’t have time to eat.
After recalling one stretch where he counted 196 days in a row on the calendar without a day off he says things are about to change. Fish might be afraid of me now. I love to fish. Either ice or open water. Doesn’t matter as long as I’m not working.