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Down at Brownie’s

Family cafe has served FD for over 50 years

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Ray Brown, owner of Brownie's Cafe, sits at one of the booths inside the Fort Dodge restaurant. In the background on the counter is a framed picture of his parents, Chet and Elta Brown. Brown worked under his mother in the 1970s before taking ownership later that decade.

Ray Brown, of Fort Dodge, starts his day earlier than most people.

The 69-year-old owner of Brownie’s Cafe, 1712 Central Ave., gets up and going at about 1:30 a.m. And he doesn’t have to go very far to get to work.

“I live in the back,” Brown said.

By 3 a.m., he starts baking the cinnamon rolls and bread that the cafe is known for.

Not too long after that the first customer arrives.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Lou, Ray Brown's faithful companion, came out for a visit to Brownie's Cafe. Something out of the frame had Lou licking his lips.

“My first customer is usually around 3 a.m.,” Brown said. “And he’s 92 years old.”

Nancy Brown, a longtime employee of no relation to the owner, calls him Albert.

“His real name is Alfred,” she said, referring to the first customer of the day.

Ray Brown, a U.S. Air Force veteran, started working at Brownie’s Cafe after he got out of the service in 1973. Brown was stationed in Anchorage, Alaska, and later in Washington, D.C.

“It was toward the end of the Vietnam War, so they let a bunch of us get out early,” Brown said.

He’s proud to have served.

“I think everybody should do it,” he said. “It gives you a basic ‘how to take commands and deal with people.’ That kind of thing.”

His mother, Elta Brown, started the cafe in 1968. It was first located east of the current location and was part of a house. Later it was moved to where Sue’s Draperies is located. The cafe found its more permanent home in 1988, where it remains today.

Ray Brown’s father, Chet Brown, was a U.S. Marine during World War II. His parents met in California before moving to Iowa.

His mother passed away in 2012. His father passed away in 1997.

“We lived two or three years in Carroll before we moved here,” Brown said.

Brown spent the first few years at Brownie’s as a waiter. Later, his mother taught him to cook.

“How to cook different foods and make the rolls and the bread,” Brown said. “How to get along with people.”

He took over as owner in 1977.

The cafe caters to the breakfast crowd.

“Our homemade cinnamon rolls are the big draw,” Brown said. “And most of our business is early morning. We have some lunch (offerings), but that’s one of the parts that has fallen down over the years. That was before all-you-can-eat started hopping like crazy.”

The Brownie’s breakfast special is eggs, potatoes, choice of meat and a drink for $9.

“He makes a mean goulash,” Nancy Brown said. “A ham and cheese omelette with homemade toast is popular, too.”

Nancy Brown is the restaurant’s only employee aside from Ray Brown. She started about 37 years ago.

“Three generations of my family have been raised in here,” she said. “My kids and grandkids.”

Operating the cafe has been all about the people, Ray Brown said.

“They become family,” he said.

When COVID-19 forced the closure of the restaurant for about two months in the spring of 2020, it was a difficult time.

“I guess that was my vacation,” Ray Brown said. “We got 2 hours notice that we were going to be closed and that was just from the TV telling us. And they never said how long. We didn’t know when we would be back open again, so I had to scrinch and save.”

Brown said there aren’t very many family restaurants left in the city.

“There’s a lot more fast food places out now,” he said. “Where it’s the big money. There’s not too many family restaurants left. Like Zakeers would be one. We would be another one. Fast food you are just a number. Here you are people.”

He added, “We are pretty laid back here. We don’t have a lot of rules.”

When not working, one of Ray Brown’s favorite events of the year is Frontier Days.

“We enjoy Frontier Days because they line up on the street out front,” Ray Brown said. “A lot of families enjoy that.”

Brown’s best friend is a dog named Lou.

“She stays in the back with me,” he said.

Brown has enjoyed doing business in Fort Dodge.

“There’s pretty good people in this town and just knowing everybody and knowing the people,” he said. “Long as I can keep going, I’ll keep doing it.”

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