Venture to downtown Stillwater and you have probably been to or at least seen the restaurant with the neon sign, red and white awning, and usually, a line that expands around the corner. Leo's Grill and Malt Shop.
I had a chance to sit down with the owner, Cory Buettner to discuss his restaurant, future plans, his thoughts on the new bridge and what he would like to see for downtown Stillwater.
If you have seen Cory around town, then you have seen his smile and his wave. But is he really as nice as he seems? Yep, he sure is. Probably one of the most genuine and humble people in Stillwater. His love of Stillwater is contagious and he is behind and part of the many of the events that happen year round including Harvestfest, Summer Tuesdays, Lumberjack Days Parade, and Best Burger in the Valley. He was even involved in the lobbying for the new bridge in Washington D.C.
Cory grew up as the youngest of 11. His father, Leo, was a World War 2 veteran who grew up during the Great Depression. Leo worked hard for his family, eventually becoming a builder and developer in St. Cloud where he purchased a farm and made it into an entire neighborhood. A true family man, Leo named the streets after his own family. There is even a "Cory Lane".
Through his high school and college days, Cory worked in various restaurant positions as a bus boy, server, and bartender. After college, he went to Madison where he focused on organic grocery and went into purchasing for a co-op. While in Madison, Cory met his better half, Naashom. After having their first son, they decided it was time to go back to Minnesota. Naashom was a teacher at the time and was offered 3 positions in various parts of Minnesota. Stillwater was one of them. After visiting the town, they fell in love with it.They decided this was going to be their new home.
Cory's mission was to one day own a restaurant. He had the skills, the drive, and his family's support. He just needed the space to do it. Soon after making this decision Cory met his parents at a well-established malt shop in downtown Stillwater called "Darla's", later called "Lily's". It was a cute, vintage diner theme. His father told him, "this is perfect, if it ever comes up for sale, you need to get it". Over the years, Cory continued to look high and low for his perfect spot. He looked in Hudson, White Bear Lake, and Midway. Then in June of 2008, he saw an ad in the Pioneer Press, the owners of "Lily's" were wanting to sell.
Tragedy struck the Buettner family in the summer of 2008 when Cory's father Leo passed away. He didn't see his son purchase the "perfect spot", but there is no doubt in Cory's mind that his Dad, "was looking out from above". In September 2008, Cory was the new owner of "Lily's" and in January of 2009, he named it after the man who made it all happen. And Leo's Grill and Malt Shop was born.
Owning a restaurant isn't as dreamy as some may think. There are many complexities and demands a restaurant can take on you. It's like a child, constantly needing you. I once worked for an owner of a successful restaurant who stated that you if you can trust your staff enough to leave the "needy child", then you are doing it right. Cory is incredibly passionate about his product and always looking for improvement, but still keeping the classics. He learned how to cook from his mother Gloria and you can taste in his famous burgers, "Gloria's egg salad" and his personal favorite, the french dip- "it tastes like home". I asked how he handles the constant demand of a restaurant. He thanked his incredible staff. He has a great general manager, Jess Hibberd, who actually worked at the restaurant before it was "Leo's". His staff has "trust and experience" which allows him to expand outside of the Leo's. He is doing it right.
Cory and Naashom's newest venture? Leo's on Wheels- their food truck. For a long time, Leo's has been at various events and serving food out of a tent, which wasn't all that efficient. So in November, Cory purchased a trailer and decked it out as his own food truck. He wanted his guests to feel that they were actually eating at Leo's when they ordered from the truck, consistency had to be key. So he gutted it and put a stainless steel flat top grill in, which is the "Cadillac" of grills. Leo's on Wheels serves delicious burgers, fries, chips, pulled pork and hot dogs. However, the malts Leo's is known for was going to be a hazard out of the food truck, so Cory decided on Malt Cups. Old-fashioned, served with a wooden spoon, straight from Leo's Grill & Malt Shop with flavors such as strawberry, dairy free mango smoothie, specialty Lift Bridge root beer, and the traditional chocolate. Seriously, if you haven't had one of these malt cups, stop what you are doing and seek Leo's on Wheels out. Cory wants to do events year round with Leo's on Wheels for graduations, weddings, and various Stillwater events. Leo's on Wheels tasty treats can already be found at the local Stillwater event, Summer Tuesdays, will be at the upcoming Harvestfest and they have catered many local office parties.
Cory's trust in his staff also allows him to really be a part of the Stillwater community. An endeavor he truly enjoys. He loves giving back to the community, it's incredibly important to him and his family and he feels it should be to all business owners. He believes that if it wasn't for the community and the support of the locals, Leo's wouldn't exist. His proudest event is the "Best Burger in the Valley", which has raised over $120,000 for cystic fibrosis since its debut in 2010. Giving back is his family's mantra.
With the new bridge, there is a lot of speculation about what is going to happen to small business of downtown Stillwater. Is business going to decrease? Increase? Is there going to be a surplus of cheese now that Wisco's aren't trekking across downtown? Cory is incredibly optimistic about what the new bridge means to business owners. Leo's is on the corner of the busiest part of Stillwater where loud traffic is almost constantly lined up. Just for safety issues with the pedestrian traffic, he is excited that the Liftbridge has closed to traffic. "Stillwater is a destination, it will be a better experience for everyone, there hasn't been a single business owner that I have talked to here who isn't optimistic about the new bridge".
I asked Cory his thoughts for downtown Stillwater, what he would like to see for the future. He believes in Ted the mayor's vision and feels that his heart is in the right spot for Stillwater. He loves that Ted keeps Stillwater in the news with Hockey Days celebration and the opening of the new bridge. If Cory could change one thing he would like to support the various retailers more- "it's tough with online shopping, but there are so many unique shops in downtown Stillwater".
So what's on the horizon for Leo's? Breakfast and Waffles! Starting sometime in October or November, Cory is looking into doing breakfast on the weekends from 8-11 am. It will be dubbed "Weekend Waffles" with various mixes on the scrumptious breakfast item we all love with a diner style spin. If it's a hit (my mouth is already watering, so I am thinking it will be amazing) then he will continue into through the busy season of summer.
As I spoke with Cory about Leo's Grill and Malt Shop, his adventures with the food truck and starting breakfast, he always turned it back to the people who have helped him along the way. First and foremost, his family. He knows he would not be able to accomplish what he has with out his wife Naashom and his two boys Blue and Gus, 17 and 15, who both work at the restaurant. He is grateful for other Stillwater business owners who have helped him out along the way with wisdom and advice, giving a hand when needed, or even offering ketchup when the food order doesn't come in, in time. "We have a great group of restaurant owners who are genuinely good people," Cory says. And he is incredibly indebted to the local Stillwaterites who have helped make Leo's Grill and Malt Shop into what it is today, a Stillwater classic.
So stop by Leo's Grill and Malt Shop either for Father's Day for free root beer's for Dad, free ice cream on the last day of school, in for Girl Scout Malts in February, or for ice cream for the cure where the profit of their pink red velvet malt goes to Vera Bradley Breast Cancer Foundation. Again, it's always about giving back. Make sure to say hi to Cory if he around, shake his hand, say a quick thank you (although humble Cory will say he doesn't need thanks) and dig into a juicy burger. Yum!