MANKATO — Maggie LaPlante was nervous, to say the least, when she learned what she and fellow students in a business class at Bethany Lutheran College were being asked to do.
The owner and managers of a small, beloved downtown cafe in Sherburn wanted to give away their business to a person or family who would vow to care for it and keep it running. And in just a few weeks, the students needed to help make the deal go down.
“At first we were all a little scared,” said LaPlante, a senior. “Then we got down there and we were like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re doing this. We’re getting this done.’”
Their conviction came from seeing what a true labor of love exists in this quiet storefront, the Cup ’N Saucer Cafe and Sweet Shoppe — where regulars gather daily, all thanks to a couple from Nevada who recently breathed new life into the place.
The humble and modest Gene and Carmen Scheppmann, who want to be kept far from the limelight, invested $25,000 of their own money to renovate the Cup ’N Saucer. They didn’t take over ownership. They just wanted to see the place fixed up without a return on investment.
Gene Scheppmann grew up in Sherburn and later moved to Las Vegas, but every summer the couple returns to the town and to nearby Fairmont, where they have a house. Pat Hansen’s family opened Cup ’N Saucer in the early 1950s, and Scheppmann was a regular customer and had fond memories of the place. He even met his first wife there.
In 2011, during a summer visit, he started having conversations with the Hansens about wanting to refurbish the cafe and keep it running. Hansen and her children aren’t able to run it on their own.
Because of his deep connection to the town and the cafe, the Scheppmanns decided not only to spend thousands renovating the place but to stay on to run it until they could find caring people to take it over. The cafe was closed for renovations in late 2011 and reopened under the Scheppmanns’ management last fall.
The Scheppmanns and Hansens hope the new owners will come with new ideas to bolster business. Right now it’s open for breakfast and lunch and serves sandwiches, burgers, soups and homemade sweets, among other things.
The cafe means so much to the community that they even got staff who worked in the cafe many years ago, now in their 70s, to come back and work, said Bethany senior Hayden Hough.
Two months ago, when the place was renovated and running smoothly, Bryan Stading, executive director of the Regional Center for Entrepreneurial Facilitation, came on board. Stading has an office in Martin County, which is how he knew about the business.
The center, located on the Bethany campus, partners with students to provide real-world business experience and opportunities to them. This project was the perfect fit, he said.
“This may never happen to us again in a lifetime,” Stading said. “It’s such a cool philanthropy story.”
Stading, more than two dozen students, their instructor Shane Bowyer and others from Bethany went to the cafe a couple of weeks ago to get familiar with the big task they were taking on. Hough said he was fully on board and excited after the visit, getting to meet the Scheppmanns, the staff and the customers. He said many of the students got hugs from people there.
“The town’s people are really behind the cafe,” Hough said.
The Scheppmanns and the Hansens don’t want to make money. They just want someone to own the cafe who cares about keeping the place a viable Sherburn business, Stading said. So they decided to give away Cup ’N Saucer.
The class returned from their visit ready to get to work on how best to handle that task. Senior Anne Huckaby said the class was inspired by “The Spitfire Grill,” a movie about a small-town cafe given way through an essay contest.
The class decided to do the same. That way they can get to know a little bit about applicants in their two- to three-page essays, why they want to own Cup ’N Saucer, and what they plan to do with the place.
Gene Scheppmann is willing to stay on for a few months after the new owners take over to help them get on their feet.
Applications will start coming in from March 7 to April 8. In the meantime, each student is assigned to a task. LaPlante is meeting with the Economic Development Authority and the Sherburn mayor, garnering input from the town and discussing marketing strategies, such as possibly putting up a billboard and creating a Web presence for Cup ’N Saucer.
Hough is working with media. Huckaby is the liaison to Gene Scheppmann, whom she describes as humble and very knowledgeable about business. In Nevada, she said he runs a construction company and his father owned a restaurant.
The students, even though they’ve only been involved for a couple of weeks, said they feel a connection to Cup ’N Saucer and a deep responsibility to make sure it ends up in good hands.
“After going down there, we definitely do,” Hough said.
“We don’t want to be the people to ruin the town,” LaPlante said.
The new owners of Cup ’N Saucer will be announced May 2.