Persevering on the prairie

CAROL AND JOE JOHNSON are more than happy to be able to open up Nellie’s Cafe to in-person dining. Photo / Per Peterson

Nellie’s Cafe in Walnut Grove has become almost as iconic as the “Little House on the Prairie” character and fictional restaurant it’s named after. But, like all other eating establishments in Minnesota, times have become tougher than usual. The global pandemic not only meant Nellie’s had to shutdown in-person dining to its regular customers twice in 2020, it also wiped out last summer’s Fragments of a Dream pageant.

“Summers are amazing,” said Carol Johnson, who has owned Nellie’s with her husband, Joe, for 24 years. “May through September are usually awesome. You’re just pumping away and things are really good, and the pageant is just frosting on the cake, the jelly on our toast. There are so many people that come to town and share their story, and we missed all that in 2020.”

Despite feeling the sting of COVID-19 on two levels, Joe and Carol have persevered. Even though the business took a major hit in 2020 — losing day-to-day business as well as the traffic that Fragments of a Dream fans bring in — Carol maintains a healthy optimism about the pandemic.

“I think there’s a negative and a positive side to COVID,” she said. “The food industry got affected the most by the shutdowns — whether you’re a small, mom-and-pop restaurant or a larger bar and grill. People who do catering … I think it affected all of us more than most people.”

See this week’s Headlight Herald for more on this article.