Sandra Gathje was looking for someplace to sell her cookies when a friend told her that a local restaurant was closing its doors.
Twenty years later, she and her husband, Rick, have gone from cookies and cakes to Tacos and More.
The Gathjes opened the doors to their new business on Feb. 1, 1998, and were not quite ready for what was about to happen that Sunday morning.
“It was a Sunday morning and we opened up at 7 a.m. with six cinnamon rolls and some coffee, and people were already lined up out the door,” Sandra said. “It had me scared to death.”
The opportunity to own their own restaurant came rather quickly — Sandra Gathje had met with a friend to deliver some Christmas cookies when she heard that Cafe Court was closing its doors.
“Doris Johnson was one of the ladies who managed the business for Jack Mindorf, and she came to me right before Christmas to pick up her cookies and said they were closing the doors and she was going to be out of a job at the end of January,” she said.
And as the old saying goes — when one door closes, another opens.
Gathje talked with her husband, Rick, about taking over the business to give her an avenue to sell her cookies and cakes that she loved to decorate.
“When I’d heard that I thought, ‘Maybe we should do that’ and so we took a month figure out how we were going to come up with the money to buy the place,” she said.
After getting a personal loan from a local bank, they bought the business and took inventory of everything the night before that first opening day.
“It was crazy,” Sandra said of that first day of business. “I could run the cash register, but we depended on the kids who had worked for Jack who were still here. Most of them stayed and helped until we got things figured out.”
The “and More” part of the business name allowed the Gathjes to expand the meal offerings to includes sandwiches and soups, as well as Sandra’s cookies and cakes.
The Gathjes and their family worked long hours, seven days a week, to get the restaurant established in the Wayne area.
“I was the maintenance man,” Rick Gathje said. “I’d come down here after work and be here through the evening, and the kids would work here some as well.”
The Gathjes said their kids — daughter Christine, now a teacher at Boys Town; and son John, currently a pastor in California — did their share to help make the business a success.
“John didn’t like it much,” Sandra said. “But Christine has a lot of her mom in her. She was our night manager and she could take care of the kids and not take any guff from them.”
The Gathjes have relied a lot on a lot of young people in the community who have worked for them over the years. Many of them would start working there in high school and would continue working through college.
“We enjoyed having the kids who would go to Wayne State after high school, and they would stay with us through college,” Sandra said. “We’ve had a lot of employees who would work here and then leave and come back later.”
“We’ve had some kids come back years later and tell us they didn’t like how tough we were on them here sometimes, but then would thank us for it,” Rick added. “They figured out how tough it is out in the real world, so it really wasn’t that bad working for us here.”
Sandra Gathje said she learned a lot of her tough work ethic from her days working across the lot at the grocery store, which was then owned by the Lueders family, and has passed that on to her employees over the years.
The business has seen a lot of growth over the years. When the Gathjes first took ownership, the dining area was located where the current front counter is at, while the present dining area was a game room.
The addition of meeting space has also allowed for more groups to gather for meetings, from the Kiwanis to other organizations.
It has also given the Gathjes the opportunity to connect with a lot of people in the community and the region.
“We see families come in who now have kids graduating from high school and college, and those kids were little babies when they first started coming here 20 years ago,” Rick said.
The Gathjes have also taken Tacos & More out on the road, using a small trailer to set up a mobile restaurant for events like the Wayne Chicken Show and area county fairs.
“The Wayne County Fair had needed vendors one year, so we took a tent out there and had nachos and a couple of basic food items,” Rick said. “Later on, the Pepsi company had a trailer that we could borrow, and then a few years ago they sold those trailers so we’ve got the same one we’ve been using for years and now we go to the Wayne Chicken Show, the county market days at the Pilger rest stop and a number of county fairs. We’re pretty much gone every weekend in the month of July.”
The Gathjes have also expanded into the catering business, setting up taco bars at the hospital, local businesses and other private parties.
And Sandra’s cookies are still a hot item, especially during the holidays.
“I’ll roll out about 1,500 dozen cookies during the month of December — all by hand,” she said. “I love doing the cookies. It gives me something different to go back to every so often.”
For their 20th anniversary Thursday, Tacos & More will be selling 99-cent tacos all day, and the Gathjes and their staff have been busy cooking case after case of taco shells and their classic seasoned ground beef in preparation for the big day.
“Last year when we did this, we sold 1,643 tacos,” Sandra said. “Somebody said we should sell 2,000 for 20 years.”
With a brand new floor installed by Jason Sears, the Gathjes are excited to have the community stop by and celebrate their 20th anniversary.
How much longer the couple plans to continue in the business is anybody’s guess, but they truly enjoy everything it has given them over the years.
“We have no intentions of quitting right now,” Sandra said. “We’ve had a lot of support from the community and people who come back for the Chicken Show or reunions will always stop in and say hi and get a burrito grande. We’ll have to see what happens.”