CEDAR RAPIDS — Long before they were married 46 years ago, Norm and Sandy Wilkerson grew up going out to eat at Canteen Lunch in the Alley in Ottumwa.
The iconic cafe, which has been open since 1927 and in its current location since 1946, is famous for its loose meat sandwiches, an Iowa tradition akin to a sauceless Sloppy Joe.
“We both had been going there since we were little kids,” Norm said. “We always thought it would be fun to have a little diner.”
In honor of Canteen Lunch, the Wilkersons opened Loosies, their own loose meat sandwich shop June 10 at 1611 32nd St. NE in Cedar Rapids.
They previously owned another restaurant, The Breadline, which was open in Iowa City in the early 1980s. They have owned several other businesses over the years, but this is their first foray back into the restaurant world.
Inside Loosies, stools line a horseshoe counter around the open kitchen space, so the chefs and customers can interact over the loose meat sandwiches, which come with choices of toppings including pickles, onion, mustard, ketchup and cheese. The meat cooker was specially fabricated for them based on the one in Ottumwa.
Though Maid-Rites are perhaps the most well-known chain serving loose meat sandwiches, Norm emphasized that what Loosies serves is not a Maid-Rite. The Wilkersons created their own spice mix for the meat in their sandwiches.
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“If we told you the spice blend, we couldn’t let you out of here alive,” Sandy said with a laugh.
She also makes homemade pasta and potato salads for the menu, which also includes hot dogs, egg and cheese sandwiches, root beer floats, malts and shakes, and pie, which they source from Kathy’s Pies in Cedar Rapids.
“There’s no reason for us to try to do something better than Kathy’s,” Norm said. “Our whole deal is to try to do something simple and just do that very well.”
The conversation and camaraderie afforded by the open kitchen is the Wilkerson’s favorite part of the business, they said.
“It’s fun. It’s like having a bar without the alcohol,” Norm said. “We have a lot of regulars already.”
They bought the tiny building two years ago when it was still a house and spent the last two years renovating it and working through the rezoning process to be able to open it as a restaurant. Though road construction has disrupted some traffic around the restaurant, they said they hope people realize all the neighborhood’s businesses are still open.
The interior, with big plate glass windows, is bright with wood panels. Sandy said she wants customers to feel at home.
“I liked getting this house. I’ve always liked to decorate,” said Sandy. “And I’ve cooked for my family for years. It’s just nice to know other people like my food. A lot of responses have been that I like sitting at your grandma’s counter.”
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Both their daughters and a granddaughter have worked some shifts at the restaurant, and Norm said that contributes to the congenial atmosphere.
If the restaurant is busy, and a group comes in, they encourage people to split up their parties and sit wherever stools are available.
“In Ottumwa, that’s kind of the culture. If a seat comes open, you take a seat,” Norm said. “We just have a fun atmosphere.”
Norm is 70, Sandy is 68, but they said opening a restaurant sounded better than retirement.
“We’re at the point of our lives, where if we want to do something, we have to do it,” Sandy said. “I don’t think either of us will ever retire.”
“There’s no need for that,” Norm agreed.
If you go
• What: Loosies
• Where: 1611 32nd St. NE, Cedar Rapids
• Hours: 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. daily
• Details: (319) 200-1002, loosies.business.site
l Comments: (319) 398-8339; firstname.lastname@example.org