The late Bob Sanger ran a busy working bakery in an historic building on Lamberton’s Main Street. It was also a town gathering spot, with a soda fountain, hot coffee and shelves full of sweets.
“I remember going in there for the candy, and I remember specifically the Tootsie Rolls for a penny. That’s what I always bought,” said Lamberton native and Burnsville resident Michelle Van Engen.
More than friends, family and nostalgia draw her back to Lamberton, a town of about 850 on U.S. Highway 14 in southwest Minnesota farm country.
Michelle and her husband, David, recently bought the 120-year-old Sanger’s Bakery building, which went on sale this summer after Bob Sanger’s passing in March at age 80.
In place of the bakery, which had been closed, the Van Engens plan to open Seven Sisters Coffee – a combination cafe, coffee shop and event center with beer, wine and music.
“We’re saying this summer,” said Michelle, one of seven sisters in a family of 10 children. “That’s a race.”
The Van Engens, both 29, were in town for a wedding reception when they noticed that the building had gone up for sale as part of the Sanger estate.
“We were like, ‘Oh, my God, what a mess,’ ” David recalled. “But we just fell in love with the building.”
The object of their desire and of Michelle’s childhood memories is a two-story brick structure built in 1892 to house First National Bank.
A post office addition went up in the early 1900s, David said. Entrepreneur Martin Kuhar bought the building in about 1920 and turned it into a bakery, David said.
The bakery was later sold to Nick Sanger, who turned it over to son Bob in 1960.
The Van Engens inspected the building and sent a couple of contractors to do the same. They initiated the purchase in September, Michelle said.
“And it was such a low price that it offset some of the risk,” David said. “If you bought a building like this in the Twin Cities, it would cost a million, two million dollars.”
Bob Sanger and members of his extended family lived in part of the building, which encompasses more than 6,000 square feet and whose high ceilings have the Van Engens dreaming of a pair of loft-style apartments on the second floor.
“That’s in the future, though,” David said last Friday from Lamberton, where he was stripping linoleum glue from the 120-year-old wooden floor on the first level. “Right now the emphasis is getting the business going. My wife and I have been spending the last three months just cleaning the building. Bob was a bit of a collector, and he never threw anything away. There’s just an enormous amount of history that we’ve been unearthing. We have found relics that date back to 1870.”
The larger of the relics include old boilers, a wood burner and a rotary oven that could bake several dozen loaves of bread at a time. The behemoth was assembled and welded together on site in 1951.
“I actually dislocated my shoulder doing it, but we finally have that monster taken apart,” David said.
Some of the relics will stay.
“There are a number of large cabinets that are beautiful,” David said. “The old soda fountain, including the soda fountain stools, are going to be refurbished and installed elsewhere. We will still have an old soda fountain.”
An Iraq War veteran who works long three-day shifts as an emergency technician at Park Nicollet Hospital in St. Louis Park, David spends much of his spare time back in Lamberton, toiling over his building.
Michelle said she makes the two-and-a-half-hour trip at least two weekends a month to work on the project. The couple moved from Golden Valley to Burnsville about a year ago to be closer to her job as an electronic communications and marketing specialist for CaringBridge, an Eagan-based nonprofit.
“My wife and I possess a large number of skill sets ourselves,” David said. “We’re willing to do the hard work. And we have been doing the dirty work to get things done. … By laying the groundwork, we cut our cost in half of what it takes to resurrect a building this size. It’s quite daunting.”
Financing building upgrades and the business startup remains a challenge, he said.
“The banks, and I won’t name specific banks, have been pretty difficult to work with,” David said. “In doing our due diligence for this business, we’ve gone through the appropriate resources.”
If necessary, next summer’s planned opening could be extended.
“For us,” David said, “failure is not an option, but it is something we’re prepared for. It all comes down to the banks.”
The couple is planning a cheery, hometown-style cafe in the front of the building, a more modern coffee shop in the middle and the music club and event center in the back, which has exposed-brick walls.
“We want to open it up to everybody,” David said.
Lamberton could use such a place right now. A cafe recently closed, Michelle noted. Perhaps the best thing the Van Engens have going for them is the townspeople’s encouragement.
“The response has been absolutely ecstatic,” David said. “Everyone is very much looking forward to it. It’s been difficult to get work done because everyone is constantly dropping in to say hi.”