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Keeping the Classics Alive on Main Street

By Peter McNiff, Photo by Shannon Crimmins, “In Person” Stillwater Living, June 2011

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We’ve all got a few of our favorite things, and for the most part we want those things to remain unchanged. When it comes to malts, burgers, and fries, we’ve got more than just a few favorites. Cory Buettner understands customers’ iron grip on the classics at his restaurant, and he has worked hard to keep Leo’s Grill & Malt Shop the same little gem that we’ve always known it to be.

A native of St. Cloud, MN, Cory grew up the youngest of eleven children. From a young age he understood the value of personal responsibility, hard work, and dedication. Throughout high school and college he held various positions at restaurants. Many of us are familiar with the ladder whose first rung is bus boy, whose second rung is server assistant, and so on.

As a young man fresh out of college, Cory set out on his own and moved to Madison, WI in pursuit of a career in the natural foods industry. Once again he was diligent in his efforts, and in time Cory moved from the grocery side of the business to employment with a large regional cooperative where his focus was in purchasing.

Cory wasn’t all business all the time, though. He made time to balance work with play.  While working in Madison, he and his two male roommates struck up a strong friendship with the three women living across the street. Six months after introducing himself to the ladies with a fresh plate of watermelon in hand, Cory began dating Naashom. Flash forward sixteen years—the couple has made Stillwater their home, along with their sons, Blue and Gus.

We should all be grateful for Blue because it was his birth that caused Cory and Naashom to shift their priorities and move back to Minnesota. Cory had long wanted to be a restaurateur, and with his wife’s support he began investigating locations. In 2005, Cory met his parents for lunch at Lily’s Grill & Malt Shop. While enjoying lunch, his father commented, “If this place ever goes up for sale, you’d better jump on it.” Four years later it did, and Cory didn’t hesitate.

Cory’s father passed away shortly before he purchased the little gem on Main Street, but his name lives on as the namesake of the restaurant – Leo. It seems that Leo’s work ethic and attention to detail is present at the grill and malt shop, too. Cory abandoned the pre-made hamburger patty that is so prevalent in restaurants today. Instead, he employs the old fashioned process of hand pressing his patties on the grill. This process sears the ground beef and makes for a juicy burger. It also allows the cooks at Leo’s to add flavors such as jalapeños or onions and bacon.

Burgers and malts are Leo’s bread and butter, and Cory scours the landscape for the best ingredients. In fact, he travels to Illinois to find the perfect caramel topping – quality ingredients make for repeat customers. Last year Cory was in pursuit of the best possible onion rings, and after making a change his customers let him know that they preferred what he had been serving prior to the new rings. In the end, Cory gave his clientele what it wanted by returning to his previous onion ring.

Let the onion ring scenario stand as an example. Cory understands not to mess with the classics. Some things—our favorite things—ought to remain constant. Therein lies value and tradition. May we always find a line of flip-flop-clad feet at Leo’s ice cream window, a red and white-striped awning mounted over a quaint restaurant crammed with happy customers enjoying old-fashioned hamburgers, crispy fries with ketchup, and creamy malts. The recipes they’ve known and loved for years.

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