When Joe Kohler was a teen working as a busboy and line cook at Big Ben in White Bear Lake, he caught a fever he’s never been able to shake—nor wanted to. Working his way up to part-time manager, “I really just enjoy that instant gratification of when people tell you you’ve done a great job,” he says. “It’s such a rush. The main ingredient is that we all care, and we want customers to leave happy.” Kohler transferred to the Stillwater Big Ben in 1974 at just 19, and eventually bought out the other partners, changing the name to Joseph’s. The rest is history.
“At first, this was really just a coffee shop and diner,” he says from the new bar of his recently renovated space. He gives a quick history of the changes he and his family have made in the 40-plus years they’ve been located off of Highway 36 in Stillwater. “In 1976, we built on the side room,” he says. Meanwhile, the Kohler family was growing up alongside the business. Daughter Gina and son Joe Jr. each spent time working in the restaurant before pursuing their own careers, but when the residential building market crashed in 2008, construction manager Joe Jr. came back as a part-time manager—to stay. Today, “I’m trying hard to follow in [Dad’s] footsteps,” he says. “If the plan is to sustain the business for years to come, then we needed to make some changes ... Now we’re seeing a whole new age [demographic] of diner.”
The senior Kohler agrees that he’d like to start to take a step back from the business, down to five workdays a week, and at the end of the day the impetus for the business overhaul—including a complete décor and layout change of the west side of the interior, the addition of a bar and patio, and a menu overhaul to include more healthy options in addition to traditional favorites—was indeed what has sparked his culinary fire all these years. “We’re going to do what we know people want,” he says, “and that’s sophisticated, classy, comfortable dining experiences.”
The changes took place over three years, and the last pieces of patio layout and outdoor LED lighting were just completed last summer. Dark wood floors and bar tops, a faux-tin ceiling and a backlit bar greet diners where the 1950s-style dining counter and pie case once did—but on the east side of the building, the pie case still glows in all its glory, illuminating 20-plus kinds of pies and welcoming diners into the more traditional layout in what is coincidentally the original part of the building. “It’s not just preferred by some of our local regulars, but it’s also more handicapped-accessible than the bar tops and elevated booths,” Kohler says, adding the space isn’t the only carry-over: the commitment to fresh, local partners continues. “Now our menu is nicer, healthier, but with history.” Standouts for the winter months, while the portions are leaned to 4 to 8 oz. of protein, and the rice is a heart-healthier brown, still include luscious sauces—think bourbon-glaze and andouille sausage over Southern-style grits.
Oh, and the pie. Joseph’s sells 1,000 every Thanksgiving, and additional pies during the December holidays, but with such a mad rush, orders start filling up as early as a month before. Pumpkin, apple and pecan are most popular. Pie bakers Anne Thompson and Arturo Balderama are just two of the 75 employees that keep Joseph’s running, like clockwork, seven days a week.