The Schatz story is a tale of two cities and one family with vision and grit. It began here in Minot in the early 70’s.
Danny Schatz was a young man who seemed to have it made. Handsome, charismatic, a regular sprint car driver; he and his brother (a cowboy) were nicknamed the “Marlboro men” by their admirers. As if that wasn’t enough, Danny had a job to die for with the railroad as an electrician, with great pay and even better benefits. By all accounts, at the age of 25 Danny was set for life. But Danny aspired to have more… To grow as much as he could.
Some say an entrepreneur is a juvenile delinquent who never grows up. True or not, someone with Danny’s drive without a suitable outlet will likely either get in trouble or build something big. That energy has to go somewhere, and the need for the security of a regular paycheck isn’t enough for some folk. Danny’s first entrepreneurial act was to quit his job at the railroad. His second, perhaps the more difficult of the two, was to tell his new wife Diane.
Diane had grown up on a local dairy farm and was no stranger to hard work. They had horses at the farm, and their shared passion for horses was part of what drew the two of them together. Or maybe numbers people can’t resist race car driver types, who’s to say? Diane got promising employment at a local bank where she worked until Danny dropped his bombshell on her. Diane gamely quit her job and in 1975 they walked into Standard Truck Stop on the south side of Highway 2 & 52 and applied for jobs, Danny as the station manager and Diane as the restaurant and office manager. Was this a case of Diane’s standing by her man or an entrepreneurial itch of her own? Or maybe both? If you know Danny and Diane, ask them sometime.
One of their first employees was Cora Rundberg, you likely remember because she was still working there baking those wonderful pies, 40 years later, at Schatz Crossroads Restaurant. Cora says the first restaurant had maybe 20 tables, and her first job was as a prep cook, which in restaurant language is the person who prepares the daily specials. Because they were the daily specials, they were lower priced and had to be prepared in larger quantities.
Two years later, in 1977, with this experience under their belt, Danny and Diane leased the space on the north side of the highway (where Westlie’s Truck Center is today) and became the owners of Schatz Crossroads Skelly’s Truck Stop. Ten years and three kids later, they bought Minot Standard Truck Stop on the south side of the highway where their journey had begun, and eventually changed its name to Schatz Econostop. They now operated truck stops and restaurant operations on both sides of the highway.
Cora tells stories about how Krista, the youngest of the children, used to sit on the counter at 2 or 3 years old, peel cabbages to make coleslaw and take an occasional bite out of a raw onion. Their clientele has been so loyal, Krista says there were people sitting at the exact same tables in the restaurant on the day that she graduated from high school that they had occupied on the day she was born. Some of them even had their names painted on the backs of their chairs. Krista was imbibing entrepreneurship the same way kids learn language-by immersion in it, surrounded by exceptional role models-entrepreneurial parents. What university curriculum can match that for results?
As challenging as it might be to operate two truck stops across the highway from each other, it is quite another to open a third one 270 miles away. That is what Danny and Diane did in 1994. They made a huge investment in a Petro franchise truck stop operation in Fargo. To use a figure of speech, you might say they bet the farm. For the next six years, they continued their primary residence in Minot and managed Fargo long distance. What they had going for them was an extremely stable clientele (some folks ate in their restaurants three or four times a day), and a stable work force. Two of their cooks, Kent (now deceased) and Sue, have been with them for the last 40+ years. And then there was Krista, who was growing up, eventually worked in the truck wash, before graduating to kitchen help and finally as a server (face-to-face exposure to the paying customer).
By 1998, Krista was 17, couldn’t wait to get out of Minot, and moved about as far away as she could, to New York City, where she attended Pratt Institute for the fine arts. Brother, Donny Schatz, was following in Danny’s footsteps of becoming a Sprint Car legend. Sister, Deanne Schatz, attended NDSU in Fargo and worked closely with Diane.
Juggling competing business demands, in 2000 Danny and Diane reversed themselves and moved their primary residence to Fargo and operated Minot operations remotely, and in 2002 they combined their two Minot truck stops into one, which is the current Minot Schatz Crossroads Truck Stop. Meanwhile Krista had decided she liked the big city, and after Pratt, she moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul where she distinguished herself in high-end web technology and advertising firms. Then came the 2011 flood and a phone call from mom. Krista, now married and with an 18-month old son and a high-powered career, was needed in Minot. Would she come home? Many of the employees couldn’t get to work because their homes were under water. Schatz was committed to staying open 24/7. Minot was a disaster area, and confusion was endemic.
Krista came “home,” along with husband Nicholas Marshall and their toddler son Oliver. When Krista asked her dad what her title was going to be, his answer was “You’ll know in time.” How different from corporate America. That was her first lesson in not getting hung up on titles. When she asked “How will I know what to do?” he responded “You’ll figure it out.” And she did. At first it was daunting, so much to do with resources spread so thin.
Under remote guidance from mom and dad, and with an innate capacity for taking one thing at a time, Krista focused on basics. First good, basic, home-style food. The menu hadn’t changed in 30 years, and Krista saw no need to fix what wasn’t broken. As she says, “It’s who we are. Why try to be something we aren’t?” Another basic was software updates, cleanliness and other tweaks that would improve the experience for the customer.
Since Krista’s arrival in 2010 Schatz Crossroads has gone through various renovations. But, that is really no different than any other decade in their 40-year history…. The Schatz family has always been committed to updated, clean and functioning equipment.
Krista must have inherited her family’s competitive genes. She remembers when her mom and dad showed horses, they always went for best in class, and she’s still doing that. I have been through the kitchens several times and they are modern, and the stainless gleams. The menu is basic but extensive, with lots and lots of what I call comfort food. One whole wall is emblazoned with giant letters, Steak and Eggs. They sell about 75 of those every morning. And you don’t have to sit in that dining room to order it.
This is not fine dining. This is casual country dining at its best. There must be some very good reasons why they serve up to 1,000 meals a day here. I came in Christmas Day and it was full. Some come just for the cakes and pies, homemade Holiday Dinner, and of course, for the sour cream and raisin pie, which is Krista’s grandmother’s recipe, and is in a category all by itself.
Prices? I haven’t seen a lot of luxury cars in the parking lot, so it seems a lot of ordinary people find the pricing acceptable or they wouldn’t be there so often. Or maybe they are extraordinary people who judge value by more than a price tag. It seems to me that is the North Dakota way.
Haven’t eaten there yet? Go for breakfast (which is anytime) and order the Spanish Omelette. Take someone with you; it’s big enough for two people. Seriously. It’s got hash browns, onions, green peppers, American cheese and three eggs. They pour a Spanish sauce over the open omelette and then fold it over. I prefer mine on toasted sourdough bread. It is served with sour cream and salsa.
Maybe it’s just me, but there’s one more thing I have noticed about Schatz’s restaurant. I don’t see that many people on their smart phones. Maybe they don’t need their social media as much because they are having such a good time talking to real people. People are talking everywhere. The next time you go there, take a moment and just listen to the hum of it.
Krista, like so many others, has benefited greatly by leaving the area and gaining valuable experience and global perspectives, and the family business stands to benefit from this “away from home” exposure. On the other hand, Krista and Nic both marvel at how much there is to know and learn; the nitty-gritty details of every business that make or break you. High-flying business jargon and buzzwords won’t get you through that. Krista gets it right when she says technology has to serve the business, not vice versa. You resist the temptation to overbuy, becoming beta testers for new toys. That is what smooth generational transfers are all about, combining the best of the old and the new. Each generation has to appreciate what the other brings to the table. As Krista says, “I can’t imagine not doing everything in my power to preserve and build upon what my parents have spent their lives creating.”