Heidi Robinson spent most of her childhood doing pretty much every job possible at Merlin’s Family Restaurant.
The memories of working with family and friends at the popular local café-style restaurant are seemingly endless.
When the opportunity arose to keep the business in the family, Robinson couldn’t resist.
She officially took over Merlin’s on Oct. 15, buying it from her parents, Sue and Clayton Weitnauer, who owned it since 1994.
“They were trying to sell it for a while, and my husband and I were always saying ‘Should we buy it? Should we not buy it?’” Robinson said. “We finally just decided to do it because things kept falling through. I’ve always wanted to own a restaurant. It’s been my dream. The timing hadn’t worked out before, but our kids will all be in elementary school next year so we decided to go for it.
“I worked here a long time as a kid, in junior high, high school and college. I moved away for five years (to Delano) and my mom was ready to move up north. She actually just got her real estate license. They live in Zimmerman but are at the cabin in Garrison a lot. My dad works full-time in Elk River and still works there. They’re not retired yet, but she was just ready to do something else.”
The idea to take over Merlin’s originated from Robinson’s grandmother, Kathy Kokesh.
When Kokesh died last March, it seemed to make even more sense to keep it in the family.
Some of Robinson’s most vivid childhood memories are within the walls of Merlin’s, located just off of U.S. Highway 169 in Princeton.
She became a fixture not long after her parents took over the business as a 7-year-old. On Mother’s Day, she would stand on a step and run the cash register while giving out carnations to the moms.
Through junior high, high school and on college breaks, Robinson could be seen doing dishes with her brother and waiting tables.
Her first memory, however, isn’t a good one.
The business was shut down and was left vacant for months before taking over. What they found upon seeing the inside for the first time wasn’t pleasant.
“When my grandmother first bought it, it was a dump because the previous owner just left it,” Robinson said. “She had the original idea behind it our family taking it over. So she brought us in here and there were still pancakes in the bus tubs. So we were in here a long time cleaning up before it opened.”
Robinson has been teaching part-time in the Otsego district, but she left that job as of last Friday so she can devote her time to the restaurant.
She plans on making some gradual upgrades to both the interior and exterior of the building while striving to maintain the food quality customers have come to expect at Merlin’s.
Favorites such as skillet breakfasts, biscuits and gravy, chicken fried steak and the “Big Stack” of pancakes aren’t going anywhere, Robinson said.
Many of the customers back then are the same people who come through the doors on a daily basis today. They are open 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, but there is talk of staying open for dinner due to the business of the area, which includes Walmart and Aldi.
“It’s so fun seeing all the familiar customers we’ve seen for years,” Robinson said. “They’re what keep us open, and a lot of them are in here every single day. It’s been going really well so far and has been a lot of fun. We’ve been doing some little updates, and we have some long-term goals too.”