Monona Area Business Spotlight: St. Olaf Tavern

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Randy and Lisa Lenth own the St. Olaf Tavern, located at 106 S. Main St., in St. Olaf. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

St. Olaf Tavern is famous for its pork tenderloin sandwiches. "But we’ve really taken the pork loin and done so much more with it than just the pork tenderloin,” said Randy Lenth.

By Audrey Posten, Times-Register

 

Randy Lenth started bartending and cooking at the St. Olaf Tavern the summer after high school. His parents bought the business a year and half later, in 1979, and owned it for 15 years. But Randy never imagined he and his wife Lisa, after living away from the area for years, would return home to own the bar/restaurant themselves.

 

“It was for sale before we were done with our jobs, in 2009,” Lisa recalled. After leasing it to her brother for 6.5 years, the couple took over operations in 2015.

 

“That’s the way things fall into place. When an opportunity comes and you’re ready for it, that’s what you do,” said Randy. “We wanted to save the place. We wanted to fix it up and bring the business back.”

 

St. Olaf Tavern is famous for its pork tenderloin sandwiches but Lisa said the mushroom and swiss burger and bacon cheeseburger are favorites too. The newer Uff da Burger is one pound, specially seasoned, and topped with grilled mushrooms and onions. 

 

“We’ve also changed a couple sandwiches,” Lisa said. “Our reuben, now instead of the corned beef, has a mini pork tenderloin in it. It has the sauerkraut on it, and people love that. Also, we’ve taken the cordon bleu and instead of having the ham and chicken, we have a mini pork tenderloin and the ham and swiss cheese.”

 

Pork squealers, one-inch chunks of pork trimmed from the larger loins, are tasty appetizers.

 

“We’ve really taken the pork loin and done so much more with it than just the pork tenderloin,” Randy said.

 

“Our most recent version of the tenderloin is we make a pizza out of it,” Lisa noted. “The crust is ‘The Big One,’ and then we put pizza toppings on the top.”

 

These special pizzas come as the “Pig Pen,” with bacon, ham, peppers, mushrooms, onions and mozzarella cheese, as well as the “Pineapple Pig,” with pineapple and ham.

 

With pork, beef, chicken, fish and vegetarian options, Randy said St. Olaf Tavern appeals to a variety of taste buds.

 

“We have a really good combination, and that’s been part of our success,” he commented.

 

“We don’t have a really big menu,” Lisa added, “so, we figure, let’s be good at what we do.”

 

In fact, St. Olaf Tavern has become a destination for many customers.

 

An easy drive from cities like Mason City, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, La Crosse and Rochester, Randy said day trippers are frequent visitors. So are bikers, classic car cruises and side-by-side riders.

 

“They come into this area and love the natural resources, they love the parks, and they’re looking for a great place to eat,” he shared. “Our Octobers, especially, are getting better and better because of tourism. People are coming into this area for the leaves and fall harvest celebrations, the trout fishing, the camping, kayaking. That’s fun to be part of.”

 

One of Lisa’s favorite stories was a gentleman traveling from the east to the west coast with his son.

 

“They were on I-90 and heard about us, and drove all the way from Minnesota down here. They got off the beaten path just to come here and eat,” she remarked.

 

Even during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lisa said customers were traveling from Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota—up to four or five hours away—to dine with the St. Olaf Tavern.

 

“They knew we had a place to sit outside,” she said, “and they just wanted to get out and go somewhere and go out to eat. Lucky for us, that’s a big part of everyone’s normal routines.”

 

The Lenths credited local customers for their success too. 

 

According to Randy, St. Olaf Tavern serves as a coffee shop in the morning and caters to the lunch crowd in the afternoon and supper crowd at night. It’s the place to stop for a beer after work. 

 

“You get into a larger city and that’s four different businesses,” he said. “There’s so much of rural Iowa that’s disappearing, and that’s kind of why it’s important to keep these things going. It’s been a super business for us.”

 

“People are looking for spots like this,” Lisa quipped. “Just the other night, we were getting ready to close down and this couple came in. They were from Tennessee and sat down and said, ‘This place is so clean, this is so good.’ You get those first timers, and they’re happy, and it makes it all worth it.”

 

For Lisa, those rewarding interactions, as well as connecting with people—both old and new friendships—has been her favorite part of bar/restaurant ownership. The Lenths also appreciate their staff.

 

“We employ 8 percent of St. Olaf,” Lisa joked. “It’s so awesome we have that many quality, hard-working people.”

 

Running the St. Olaf Tavern isn’t easy, acknowledged Randy. 

 

“It’s a great business, but you have to work hard. You have to have a real passion for it,” he shared. “We have basically re-done this entire building. It’s been a passion to do that, and it’s something we’re both proud of, to be able to save the building and the business. We’ve done what we wanted to do.”

 

Learn more on the “St. Olaf Tavern” Facebook page or at stolaftavern.com.

This businss spotlight is supported by Monona Chamber and Economic Development, Inc.

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