Sioux Falls’ fried chicken restaurant brought back to life
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Vonnie Larsen feels at home here in this tidy restaurant attached to a gas station near Interstate 29.
Truth is, it’s more than a home. The Keg was never limited by geography or bricks-and-mortar, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader reported .
It’s a gathering space, a family tradition and a culinary philosophy, all mixed together, seasoned and deep fried with love and care.
“It’s in your blood,” Vonnie said.
The Keg is the Larsen family.
The Larsens, their children and their grandchildren are celebrating 40 years of serving the Sioux Falls community the family’s unique recipe of fried chicken.
Neil Larsen wanted to do something to honor his customers. Some of them are familiar faces who have been ordering chicken since his family first took over the restaurant.
They come each week without fail, willing to wait out any line that may form during the Keg’s busy dinner rushes.
They were there during one of the darkest periods of his life, when the Keg closed its last Sioux Falls location in 2012 under the crushing financial pressures left behind by the Great Recession.
“You go, ‘all that hard work and it’s gone,’” Neil said. “It was really hard on me.”
But it was the Keg’s loyal clientele who lifted Neil’s spirits.
After all, The Keg never really went away, Vonnie said. It just moved.
The Larsens found work running the kitchen at the Lakes Restaurant and Resort on Lake Madison. Old Sioux Falls customers followed them there, making the two-hour drive both ways to pick up chicken.
Neil for the first time realized how much Sioux Falls appreciated his business.
“Oh my God, they love us,” Neil said.
The Larsens have already started asking the Keg’s thousands of Facebook followers to share photos and stories in advance of the 40th Anniversary celebration.
Sitting in a booth near the front door, Vonnie Larsen hears laughter all the way from the back of the kitchen as staff prepare for the 11 a.m. open and the eventual weekday lunch rush.
One of the voices belongs to her daughter.
“My girls are crazy,” Vonnie said.
All of her kids have worked at The Keg at some point.
Daughter Becky Mammenga runs front-of-house operations.
She tried to avoid the family business for years. Even moved to Nevada.
But when she agree to fill in at the restaurant after returning to Sioux Falls, Mammenga was drawn to the place.
“The sense of family here, the regulars coming in,” she said. “I got to feel that myself.”
Casie Scott, another daughter, is on maternity leave from her job managing the kitchen.
That hasn’t stopped her from visiting.
“The day I was released from the hospital we came down to see some of my co-workers,” Scott said.
She introduced the Keg family them to their newest member.
Micah is 3 weeks old, and Scott is already sure he’ll be doing the same things she was doing as a child growing up under the counters of the restaurant.
“He’ll be sitting on the counter eating parts of the chicken before you know it,” Vonnie said.
Micah’s cousin, Shayne Arrowood, is one of two grandchildren who work at the restaurant. He’s a part-time cook.
The 20-year-old still remembers when Neil asked him if he wanted to train as a cook and learn how to make the chicken his grandfather has made for 40 years.
He was a teenager at the time.
“I always said I wanted to do that when I was little,” Arrowood said. “I just wanted to be part of that experience.”
In a different time, in a different place, Vonnie was a loyal customer of The Keg, a single mother of two who often stopped by to grab dinner on her way home from work.
She asked for a job one day, met Neil and the two started dating a couple of weeks later.
“I fell in love with the chicken first,” Vonnie said.
That’s something she and her husband share. Before they owned the business, they loved the chicken.
Neil grew up eating it. The Keg was the best chicken place in town, he said.
When his family started looking at opening a restaurant, they went to The Keg and asked if they could purchase the recipe. Instead, previous owner offered to sell them the entire business.
The Larsens bought the restaurant in 1979 and took over the old location, putting their teenage son in charge of daily operations.
Neil was 19, just out of high school.
The Keg became his life.
It didn’t take long before Neil realized he liked the hard work and that the 60- to 70-hour weeks he was working were paying off.
He moved the restaurant in 1995 to a bigger space, and moved again five years later to an even bigger space next door, where OverTime Sports Grill is currently located.
It was The Keg’s most successful iteration, with a line of fryers so big Vonnie believes it may have been the longest in the United States at the time.
It’s where the Larsens first introduced the lunch buffet — still a daily offering at the restaurant. It’s also where the family ditched the drive-thru and focused on The Keg’s quickly growing catering business.
At its peak, the Keg once prepared 4,000 pieces of chicken for an employee appreciation event at Huset’s Speedway.
In 2005, he opened a second location.
A lot of Sioux Falls businesses went weeble-wobble after the economy fell through the floor and gas prices spike, Vonnie said.
“We just couldn’t wobble back,” she said.
The eastern Sioux Falls location closed in 2010. The restaurant on Marion Road closed two years later.
Vonnie compared it to a death in the family.
But it only took a few years for the Keg to mount a comeback in its hometown.
The Larsens found a good deal on a new location through friends and moved to an almost turn-key space in 2015.
The Keg was instantly slammed by hungry diners clamoring for its chicken. People were taking parking tickets for a closer spot to beat the rush.
“I had people scalping chicken,” Vonnie said.
The restaurant is Neil’s favorite, a reminder of The Keg’s roots.
It’s small. Feels almost like a dive, he said with a laugh.
Staying in business this long was an act of love — his love for the Keg, for the people he works with, including his wife, his daughters and his grandchildren.
“I’ve had a core of good people that have always worked around me,” he said. “It’s fun coming to work.”
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com