LAKE ZUMBRO — There was a time when you could run your boat on Lake Zumbro from south of the White Bridge Road, well above the Sandy Point Supper Club, to the very north end, past Rattlesnake Point to the century-old dam and powerhouse.
Those days are gone, as is the supper club, which was replaced about 15 years ago by condos. Over the years, the 600-acre Zumbro River reservoir has filled in and become murky and shallow in all but the main channel. The lake is only 15 miles north of Rochester, but it may as well be in Kandiyohi County for as often as Rochester people make the trek.
A $7.5 million dredging project is now underway, though, after years of planning and efforts to get state help, and homeowners and “lake people” are hoping it restores some of the fun and luster to the place. Ditto for the three restaurant owners on the lake, including Steve Overton, who last fall reopened the former Ponderosa Supper Club on the northwest side of the lake.
Now called The Pondy, the restaurant and bar is on a dead-end road along with the Ponderosa Campground, so Overton has the advantage of a hungry and thirsty neighborhood around him, plus six slips on the lake. On a recent Thursday night, the bar was packed and Overton was hustling to keep burgers and steaks coming out of the kitchen.
“When I opened this up, I was 110 percent confident in the kitchen, and the rest — I was kind of winging it,” he said. “Now I’m feeling a lot better about the bar and everything. We’re figuring it out.”
Flip-flop state of mind
It doesn’t hurt that the extra-long winter is over and people have returned to their campers and boats. That night, a few boaters were out, trying for bass and panfish. On the gate to a small house across the road from the bar, there’s a sign that says, “Flip-Flop Area,” and that’s the mindset Overton is counting on.
He has 20 years of restaurant experience in Rochester, starting at Carter’s restaurant, now home to Daube’s Bakery, when he was 14. Along the way, he worked at Martin’s, the Hoffman House and John Barleycorn, three other Rochester favorites that have gone away, plus a stint at Applebee’s, before getting into the construction business.
One day last year, he was at the marina in Wabasha, where he has a boat, and got talking with the owner of the supper club building, which had been vacant for three years after Its last incarnation as a bar and grill called Grandpa Ed’s. One thing led to another and Overton, 45, now has a five-year lease.
“I always kind of wanted to get back into the restaurant business,” he said, “and after 20 years, now I am.”
He sure is. The building isn’t much to look at outside, aside with the towering TV antenna, but it has big windows overlooking the lake, a large event room where his own wedding reception will be held in September, a patio for live music, two decks that face the lake, a modest boat launch and a floating dock. He had to expand the kitchen to accommodate the food he wants to serve: top-notch steaks, seafood pasta and nightly specials Wednesday to Sunday.
“I’m more of a fine-dining kind of person,” he said, and while the menu is limited, he wants the burgers and steaks to be reasons for Rochester people to go there, along with the view.
Overton, who with his fiancee Devra Clawson is working overtime to make it go, is well-aware of the challenge. “We’re on a dead-end road, so you have to be kind of intending to come here,” he said. It doesn’t help that the address is Mazeppa, which sounds like light-years away from Rochester.
At this point, he doesn’t have a big marketing budget, but he’s confident the word-of-mouth will get out, and in the meantime he has fans in the campground. Campers in full summer mode — tank tops, shorts and yes, flip-flops — pick up orders to go, have a cocktail with friends and buy pull tabs.
Two dredges are now at work in the Sandy Point area, and workers have assembled about four miles of PVC pipe to pump sludge to a pit two miles away and return cleaner water to the lake. By the time they’re done this fall, they’ll have removed about 400,000 cubic yards of muck, about 20,000 truckloads.
Jim Peterson, the long-time owner of Fisherman’s Inn, about a mile south of The Pondy, says he isn’t too concerned about the dredges mucking around with lake business. “They say their plan is to stay out of everybody’s way,” he said. “It probably won’t be too dramatic, but who knows?”
John Stancyk, who owns Uncle John’s Bar and Grill just across the channel from Peterson, says the work is in a part of the lake that was all but inaccessible anyway. “Maybe some fishing people go down that way, but over time, all the boat traffic has been getting crunched into a smaller area.”
The dredging at minimum will “make room for more people” on the lake, said Stancyk, 57, who has owned Uncle John’s for seven years. “It gets pretty busy out here when boaters can only use two-thirds of the lake. It makes a difference.”
Whether that translates into more business for him and others is another matter. “Business has stayed pretty constant over the years, growing every year, so it’s hard for me to judge,” he said. Adding Pondy’s to the mix may help. “I don’t think it hurts to have another option — it’s kind of like car dealerships, they all want to be together” and potentially share the business, Stancyk said.
Project aims to restore lake’s appeal
Fisherman’s Inn has been around for about a hundred years, and Peterson, 66, has owned it for 32 years this month. He’s cautiously optimistic about how the dredging will affect the lake and the people who live and work here.
“From the standpoint that it needed to be done, it’s a good thing. It’ll have a positive effect — it’s too early to know how positive. But the $25,000 question is, what are you doing to keep it from happening again?”
Whether that’s even possible on a river that drains tens of thousands of acres of farm and bluff land is about as clear as a cup of Lake Zumbro water. But first things first, and area residents are hopeful.
Fisherman’s Inn started out as a sandwich shop about a century ago, and while it has one of the most ambitious seafood menus in the area, from frog legs to crab legs, it remains a well-kept secret. “For every person who says we’re an institution there’s another who’s never heard of us,” said Peterson ruefully. The weekly SkiDox water ski shows help, but “for all three restaurants out here, not too many people just happen by and decide to come in.”
Maybe so, but Overton is hoping to persuade people in Rochester that it’s a modest, pretty drive to Lake Zumbro, which it is, and they’ll have good food and fun when they get here.
Two people who know that are Jennifer Galuska and Brad Borowski, of Rochester, who enjoyed an evening on the deck at Pondy recently with their dog Rooney. Their pontoon was tied up at the dock while they had a beer.
“We love it out here,” Galuska said, and having the old supper club back open is another reason to enjoy it. “It’s very homey, the people around here are well-connected to each other, and new friends are always good.”
Borowski called Lake Zumbro “a hidden gem,” close to home.
After the dredges get the muck out, and if people such as Overton, Peterson and Uncle John have any luck, that gem may be a little less hidden.
IF YOU GO
The Pondy Restaurant and Bar
40240 County Road 90, Mazeppa
Hours: 4 p.m. to close, Wednesday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to close, Friday-Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday
Directions: From Rochester, go north on U.S. 52, take exit 68 at what’s known as the Bridge to Nowhere toward Plainview on County Road 12 East for about two miles, take the second exit from the roundabout onto County Road 12 (White Bridge Road) for about 1 1/2 miles, go left on Power Dam Road for about about two miles, go right on County Road 90 (Ponderosa Road) for about a mile.
Known for: Filet mignon, burgers, and boat slips out front.
8 Fisherman Drive, Oronoco
Hours: 5 p.m-close. Monday-Friday, 4:30 p.m.-close Saturday, 11 a.m.-close Sunday
Known for: Seafood, the view of the water ski shows, and the boat launch, for customers only.
Uncle John’s Bar & Grill
12510 Oak Lodge Lane NE, Rochester
Hours: 5 p.m.-close Wednesday, 4-10 p.m. Thursday, noon to midnight Friday and Saturday, noon to 8 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday.
Known for: Broasted chicken, the house Bloody Mary mix, which is sold in area stores, and meat raffles.
Story and Photos by Jay Furst