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Eats: Kay's Kitchen cooks up success

Alyssa Zaczek,

ST. JOSEPH — Tanya Finken started her relationship with Kay's Kitchen as a waitress in high school and college. Now, she's the owner and operator.

"I worked here for something like nine years. And it was in the family, a distant relative had owned it before then. So we kind of came full circle when Kay's closed up; we bought it from Bremer Bank in 2008," Finken said.

The St. Joseph favorite is the winner of the Best Breakfast category in the 2016 Best of Central Minnesota competition, and Finken says the breakfast dishes her cooks sling every morning have stayed much the same as they were when the restaurant first opened in 1972.

"We remodeled, but beyond that it was just updating the menu a little. It wasn't broken, so why fix it? Maybe now it's more fresh, more healthy ... but we kept a lot of the menu items, the cafe style, and breakfast all day." Finken cites the traditional ham and cheese omelette as the restaurant's No. 1 seller, followed closely by breakfast specials and Kay's signature pies, particularly the cream varieties.

"The whole baking aspect of it really came from (original owner) Kay Dierkhising, who did all the baking here. The (Dierkhising) family members are out in California, and they're all bakers and instructors and chefs. It's a family of training and teaching and continuing traditions," Finken said.

And customers have certainly responded to the spirit of family and tradition. Regular customers are fixtures each day at Kay's, where some people have commandeered the same booth for decades.

"Sometimes it feels like a dream," Finken said. "I was a server here for seven years, and now I'm seeing customers come back 20 years later. Some of them are missing a spouse, some of them are missing a leg, but they still sit in the same spot and order the same food. They say 'This place was shut down and it really messed with my life!' And that’s cool, because no matter what, your customers are so constructive. They want to see you succeed and they want to keep the place open. They’re a huge part of our success."

Finken also credits the community for bolstering her business, a favor she enjoys paying back in kind. "It’s so fun to be able to give back to the local community, because they are giving to us. It’s great just to be part of this, to help with organizations and nonprofits, because they’re here supporting us and we can do that for them too. It’s a great community. I love St. Joseph."

Though Finken admits that managing employees at such a fast-paced establishment can be challenging, ("I try to give them more 'mental health days' and nurture and take care of them, because they're making this ship float!") she also believes her dedicated employees are what makes Kay's such a special place.

"It’s a lot of really core employees who have developed really amazing relationships with our customers. You know, you come in, and they know your name, and your grandkids’ names and what you’re going to eat," Finken laughs. "Those are the relationships we have with our customers, and I wouldn’t have it any other way."

Follow Alyssa Zaczek on Twitter @sctimesalyssa, email her at, or call her at 255-8761.

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