Bringing Big City Food to a Small Town

Sitting on the railroad crossing of Lake Independence Regional Trail in Loretto, Warren’s Restaurant sits at another less tangible intersection, bringing big city food to small town Loretto. I sat down with Owner John Warren Radford and Operations Manager Benjamin Eidem to get a better understanding of just how that process works. 

Warren’s Restaurant, despite opening its doors in August of 2019, has a long history. John has worked in the restaurant business since 1989 when at 23, he bought half-ownership of the restaurant Mill Creek Inn in Buffalo, Minnesota, despite having no previous industry experience. When talking about the decision, John says his parents brought him there for dinner to scope the place out.  “I don’t think my parents thought I was going anywhere,” says John. But after one meal, he pulled the trigger: “I just thought, I had nothing to lose,” he says blithely. 

            And from that point, John was all-in, learning the restaurant business in a whirlwind two weeks before the previous half-owner left.  “I was very green when I got into the business,” says John, continuing, “The first 5 years were hard, and I never want to have to do them over again.” But despite that lack of experience, and those hard early years, John took to the life. A decade later, he had bought out the other half-owner of Mill Creek Inn and began running the restaurant by himself. 

            So in May of 2019 when “stopping by the Choo Choo to have a beer" on his way home, John saw that a building across the street had recently closed. “I found out this place had chains on the doors and was closed down on a Monday," says John. That week he rushed to contact the building’s owner: “By Thursday I had a meeting with him, and by Saturday I gave him an offer and he accepted.” And thus Warren’s was born. According to John, the previous owner had left in a hurry. “When I bought it, I got everything. I got the equipment, and there was still food in the coolers and beer and liquor in the liquor cabinet, and I even got all the silverware.” And a summer’s worth of work later, Warren’s Restaurant opened its doors on August 12th, 2019. 

But when it came time to create a menu, it quickly became apparent that Warren’s was going to be different from Mill Creek Inn.  “We had to up our game here,” says Ben. And to do so, not only has the restaurant taken to smoking all their own meats, but "worked to bring new items to their Comfort Food menu," Ben adds. About the move from Buffalo to Loretto, John shares, “We revamped our menu to adapt to the community here and what they like to eat,” continuing, “Loretto being closer to the cities, people like their lighter meals.” That shift led to the addition of several bowls and salads. 

There’s a hint of pride in his voice as Ben walks me through their menu. “We aren’t a deli but we could be. We do all of our meats in-house. We smoke our brisket, we smoke our meatloaf, we smoke our pulled pork, we do our own pastrami, corned beef, and prime rib. You name it, we pretty much make it in-house. So when you get a piece of brisket here, it’s a flavor you’re not going to find anywhere else.” Having worked across restaurants from bouncer to bartender to line cook, Ben brings a similar industry experience, especially to the smoking process. “We are going to go ahead and capture the vast majority of those flavor notes and combine them into something that’s really unique and truly delicious.”

A recent addition to the menu that has since become a signature item is Warren’s Bloody Mary. Started in 2014 from a fish house on Maple Lake, John initially envisioned them as simply an oddity adorned with shrimp, chicken wings, and “weird stuff,” says John.  But the reaction was so good, “The next week we decided to sell it,” says John. Now Warren’s marinates their vodka for 10 days in a variety of vegetables before constructing each Bloody Mary. After some initial skepticism, they quickly became a staple of the menu. And to his surprise, John’s Bloody Mary has garnered an interstate following. “[Travelers] come right from the airport to get my Bloody Mary before they go anywhere else,” laughs John. 

To add to the restaurant’s history, the name Warren’s comes from John’s maternal grandfather, a Minnesota farmer named e. John knew his grandfather growing up describing him as “kind of a rough-looking guy.” And while little is known about the humble farmer from Foley, Minnesota save that he weathered the Great Depression and is rumored to have aided in bootlegging, John said the name fit. And if nothing else, it made his mother happy. 

            In taking inspiration from John’s grandfather, the restaurant took similar inspiration from his era. Not long after opening, Warren’s finished its whiskey room complete with bowler light fixtures, flapper-esque curtains, and top shelf whiskey to boot. “He [Warren] was the inspiration for the speakeasy feel; for the whiskey lounge,” says John.  

            So with another Minnesota winter having come and gone, Warren’s is looking forward to bringing guests back to their patio, serving out specialty cocktails and house-smoked meats, and according to John, “Just giving people a nice experience and a nice meal at a decent price.”

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