He’s an intriguing personality, operating a quaint Slater diner that has recently had foot traffic from none other than Gov. Terry Branstad, the next United States ambassador to China under the Trump Administration.
The week before last, tells David Sturdy (spelled just like the adjective, he says as his name is written down), Branstad stopped in at Cole’s, the eatery named after Sturdy’s 9-year-old son, and said, “I hear you have the best tenderloin in the state.” And then he tried one.
It was not the first time that Sturdy’s establishment — which has such an iconic look that you’d imagine seeing it along a historic Highway like the Lincoln Highway or Route 66 — has been in the spotlight. Cole’s, which sits at the corner of Highway 210 and Linn Street (510th Ave.), has been featured in Our Iowa Magazine, as part of the publication’s series on best Ma and Pa Restaurants in the state. It’s been featured on KCCI, in Top 10 lists and in other publications.
“I have an angel looking over me,” said Sturdy, a tall man who wears a black Derby-style hat and a black apron as he works, about the attention he’s received, which all helps to keep people coming back to buy his food.
As he talks about that angel, he looks over at the west wall of dining area, where a picture of his older son, Brandon Sturdy, hangs on the wall. “It’s his tenderloin that we make here,” he says of his son, who was a Special Operations Marine and was tragically killed in action in Iraq in 2004 at the age of just 19.
His son created the recipe for the tenderloin, and now his father is the only one who has that recipe.
Sturdy also has a recipe for being generous and keeping his oldest son’s memory alive. After Brandon was killed, he said, he had to close the place for about 11 years. “I had to work. I was a heavy equipment operator,” and he needed to work long enough to secure his pension. And when he did, then Sturdy came back to open the restaurant, giving a part of its profits every month to the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity and veterans service organization that offers a variety of programs, services and events for wounded veterans of the military actions. It was started following the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I support Wounded Warriors in his honor,” Sturdy said. And to make all this happen, he took some chef classes and said he reinvented himself, so he would know how to cook for the roadside diner that has been passed from family to family since it first opened as a gas station in 1905.
Sturdy looks at another wall where he has a picture of one of the previous owners, who stopped back in at one point in time after moving across the country. “The guy was a coach here and he employed his football players; wow, what a labor pool,” Sturdy says with a chuckle.
It was the ’50s or ’60s, Sturdy has learned, when the corner shop went from gas station to ice cream shop, and most owners operated it as an ice cream shop (many will recall that it was called Dairy Sweet for a time), until Sturdy’s son introduced more food to the establishment. “Food’s kick,” Sturdy said, and you notice as you visit with him that he has an interesting way of saying things sometimes and also has lots of stories to tell.
The place is now called Cole’s, he said, because he wants his younger son to have it some day; hoping to keep it a classic family restaurant in years to come. In the meantime, he’ll run it and bring his son along when he can, so he gradually learns everything there is to know about the place. “I’m here,” he adds, “because I ain’t going to sit on the couch and die of a heart attack just sitting there. I’m here doing something I love (for people that he loves).”
And he treasures the idea of buying lots of his food products from Iowa-based businesses. Like Graziano sausage, which he buys in Des Moines from a “mom and pop factory” along Hickman. “I use that on my pizzas, make my grinders with it and make Texas burgers with it.” He also gets his bread there, and dials up the business on his cell phone to be sure he can get the exact name of the bread, because he wants everyone to know what it’s called: Fancy Amadeos Bread.” He uses it for a lot of his hot dogs and in his pizza crust, he said.
“We put every effort in this place to have the best stuff. And I push local.”
He buys his ice cream from Picket Fence Creamery. “Great people (at Picket Fence), hard working people,” he said. “And they have beautiful cows out there; they’re happy…everything’s happy there.”
Vegetables — he buys those fresh from local growers and even grows some of them himself, right there at the side and back of his restaurant. He has things like herbs, peppers, tomatoes and broccoli growing within an arm’s reach. “I have vegetarians from Iowa State coming in here, and I make noodles here for them with the vegetables… When you come in here with vegetables from the garden and the roots are still hanging out of them, that’s the best.”
Sturdy said he was open some this winter, because it was such a nice winter, but his regular summer season, when he has the most rush, is now set to happen. His place is open every day of the week, from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and some evenings, when he gets his outdoor movie screens going soon, if the movies last longer than 10 p.m., he stays open longer.
“Summer time is our money-maker. We’ve increased business 20-22 percent every year,” he said, and that means even more funds going to his favorite charities, like the Wounded Warrior Project. “If there’s not a line, you’re (the business person) not happy. And we try to shovel (food) out as fast as we can with good quality.”
And he believes that through it all, that angel is watching over him and helping with his success.
“My son was a great man and I’m just very honored. People see his picture (on the wall) and they remember him. I’ve got to keep his memory alive. God’s blessed me.”