Hobby turns business of love

Daddio’s Drive-In owners Craig and Nancy Anson have labored with love in opening Milaca’s newest restaurant.
Daddio’s Drive-In owners Craig and Nancy Anson have labored with love in opening Milaca’s newest restaurant.

Craig Anson never dreamed his meat smoking hobby would transform into a profitable business. Nancy Anson never thought she, a chemical dependency counselor, would be working alongside her husband, a former machine operator. With the June opening of Daddio’s Drive-In in Milaca, however, both scenarios came to fruition.

The husband and wife business partners sweated through the heat of the midsummer’s day last Thursday as the restaurant filled with a healthy lunch crowd. The beads of sweat were intensified by their first surprise visit from the Minnesota Health Department earlier that day. As the two worked to fill their customers’ orders, prove to the inspector their business was operating with the highest health and safety standards and prepare for a visit from a local journalist, the pressure of owning and operating a restaurant was in full force.

The stress didn’t affect Nancy Anson’s warm and inviting smile nor did it impede Craig Anson’s down-to-earth humor as they explained how the two ended up serving stacks of homemade barbecue to locals.

Nancy (Ekberg) Anson, a 1978 Milaca High School graduate, has spent the majority of her career working at St. Cloud Hospital’s Recovery Plus treatment center helping those with chemical dependency issues. Now, she’s hoping area folks get hooked on her husband’s smoked pork ribs.

“I’ve taken some personal time off to be here,” she said of Daddio’s recent opening. Once the staff and her husband are settled into their roles, Nancy Anson plans to return full time to her position at the hospital.

Craig Anson’s other job is “sleep,” he joked. For nearly 30 years, he worked as an operator at what is now Quad/Graphics in St. Cloud. Although his new chosen career requires more time and effort, he isn’t planning on returning to the machines any time soon.

“I’m here six days a week. Some days, like today, it might be nice to go back,” Craig Anson said with a chuckle. “I’m working twice as hard.”

“And you’re twice as old,” Nancy Anson kindly reminded him.

The couple’s humble beginnings in food service began 10 years ago when they first started dabbling in smoked meats. Craig Anson purchased a small, personal-use smoker and began perfecting his pulled pork, beef brisket and dry-rub pork ribs recipes back then. His product was tasty enough to gain popularity among their Foley neighbors, who enlisted the Ansons in catering graduation parties, church events, company picnics and eventually a vendor spot in Foley Fun Days.

In 2005, the Ansons opened the commercial kitchen, Daddio’s BBQ and Catering LLC, at Journey Home in St. Cloud, a  resource center for women and children. That kitchen runs seven days a week, 365 days a year.

“The last year and a half/two years, we’ve wanted to diversify a little bit,” Craig Anson said. “Then this went up for sale.”

It’s a little different running a commercial kitchen, knowing exactly how many guests to serve that day as well as precisely what they are going to eat.  A restaurant has many more unknowns. The chance to open up shop in a community Nancy Anson had close ties to, and with limited competition, however, was an opportunity they seized.

“If we would have been driving through Cold Spring or somewhere else and saw a restaurant for sale, I don’t think we would have gone for it,” Nancy Anson said.

Equipped with a smoker than can fit about 200 pounds of their Texas-style beef brisket and pork ribs and roasts, a healthy dose of a can-do attitude and plenty of help from family and friends, the couple purchased, remodeled and opened their first stand-alone restaurant in Milaca this year. The Ansons also decided to keep the broasted chicken on the menu that has made the drive-in a popular spot for decades.

“I think we would have been run out of town if we didn’t,” Craig Anson said, laughing.

The Anson’s three children, Curtis, Micheala and especially Monica, have all helped in some capacity or another with their parents’ new venture.

“Monica has helped us in almost every aspect,” Nancy Anson said. “She does payroll and billing and everything like that.”

Nancy Anson’s father, Leroy Eckberg, also lends a hand by watering the potted plants offering their splash of color to the exterior landscaping. Even the name, Daddio’s, has an element of family to it.

“Craig called Monica ‘Kiddo’ all the time and she started calling him ‘Daddio,’” Nancy Anson explained. “She told him if he ever opened a restaurant he had to call it Daddio’s.”

Nancy Anson said it’s been particularly enjoyable to reconnect with people she grew up with in the Milaca area and getting to know the new employees.

“One of my servers gives me a hard time. She says, ‘You know everybody!’ I either went to school with them or they know my cousins,” she said. “We have a great staff. They’ve been very helpful to us and gracious in our ignorance.”

Although working alongside a spouse for 60 to 80 hours a week may spell disaster for some, Craig and Nancy Anson said the experience has been a complete joy.

“It’s been so fun to have her here,” Craig Anson said as he pulled his wife toward him for a quick hug.

That love and attention toward family and community is how the Ansons are running Daddio’s and the staff is already extending that circle.

“They are the best people I’ve ever worked for. I’ve been doing this for 19 years and I’ve even worked for my parents,” server Mindy Hamilton said, laughing. “I’m never leaving.”