History of 76-year-old Dyersville restaurant suggests ‘our family has the cooking bug’

The Ritz

Founded: 1948

Owners: Dan and Megan Engstrom

Employees: Eight

Address: 232 First Ave. E.

Telephone: 563-875-2268

Online: facebook.com/theritzdyersville

Hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to approximately 8:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to approximately 8:30 p.m.

DYERSVILLE, Iowa – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why reinvent the wheel? Avoid change for change’s sake.

There are many ways to describe the operational approach Dan and Megan Engstrom took when they assumed the ownership and operation of a family legacy four years ago.

“We don’t plan on making huge changes in the way we operate,” said Dan, who co-owns The Ritz restaurant in downtown Dyersville with his wife, Megan. “People appreciated that we came in and took over what was already here. I think so many times people buy a restaurant or ownership changes hands and (the buyers) think, ‘We have to make this our thing now,’ and they change everything up.”

Megan said the couple heard that message from regulars of the restaurant.

“What we heard from customers as soon as we got up here was, ‘Keep it the way it is … We like it,’” Megan said.

Besides, the history of the 76-year-old restaurant seemed to dictate that the Engstroms should stick to tradition.

“We found some old menus in the basement from the ‘70s and some from the ‘50s, and what is interesting is that when you open the menu and look at it, it’s the same stuff that we serve now,” Dan said.

Dan, 36, and Megan, 35, purchased and began operating the restaurant in 2020. They purchased it from Megan’s parents, Dan and Carol Sawyer.

“They owned it for 18 years,” Megan said.

Megan’s previous stint working at the restaurant began under her parents’ ownership of the place when she was 14.

“I learned to cooked in the back (of the restaurant),” Megan said. “Our cook we have now on the weekends, Becky Hess, taught me how to fry-cook (about 20 years ago).”

Dan and Carol Sawyer had purchased the restaurant from Jeff and Terri Ehlers.

“They are related to my mom,” Megan said. “Terri is my mom’s niece.”

Frederick “Fritz” Willenborg established The Ritz in 1948 and owned and operated the restaurant until his retirement in 1975.

Tony and Alma Willenborg also were among the owners of the restaurant, as was Wilma Rausch, Alma’s daughter from a previous marriage.

“It has always passed through family — just not directly through family members with the same last name,” Megan said. “It would go from a cousin to a nephew and back and forth like that. It has ping-ponged through different families that are somehow connected. The cooking bug runs in the family.”

Megan’s parents had put the restaurant up for sale, and it was listed for about four years before the Engstroms purchased The Ritz and began operating it.

“We were down in Des Moines (Iowa), because that’s where I’m from,” Dan said. “I was managing a U.S. Cellular location and (Megan) worked in a grocery store-café. We were just getting a little burned out at our jobs and considering moving back to this area.”

Megan’s parents asked: “Well, have you guys ever thought about taking this place over?”

“We thought about it and then we did it,” Dan said. “We ultimately decided that we wanted to own our own thing. It’s been a huge blessing for the both of us.”

Dan said The Ritz thrives because of its dedicated staff and customers

“This place works because of Dyersville,” he said. “They support us here so much. We really feel like a part of the community because we’ve gotten to know so many people.”

Dan said Dyersville officials also have devoted time and work on boosting downtown businesses.

“When we first came up, (Dyersville) was working on its façade project,” Dan said. “They had grants for businesses to redo their fronts. That’s how we got our (front) windows and our new front doors. Dyersville’s main street looks beautiful and the shops are full. That helps us as business owners. People want to be downtown.”

The Ritz is only open for dinner. The American fare on the menu includes prime rib, steak, pork loin, cod filets, chicken breasts and a popular Friday special: all-you-can-eat deep-fried jumbo shrimp.

The restaurant also serves homemade soup.

Cocktails such as Manhattans and the regional staple the old-fashioned are popular.

Megan said generations of diners frequent the place.

“Because the place has so much history, people will come in and go, ‘I had my wedding rehearsal dinner here 40 years ago,’ and we recently had a couple who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary here,” she said.

Former employees from decades ago eat at The Ritz, too.

“There’s not many places where you can go, ‘Well, I worked here when I was 14 and now I’m coming back and I’m 44 and still eat in the same place,’” Megan said.

The Ritz also draws tourists.

“We do get a lot of business because of the Field of Dreams and (Dyersville’s biannual Farm Toy Show),” Dan said.

Dan said the couple looks forward to owning and operating The Ritz for the long term.

“We plan on putting at least 20 years into it,” Dan said.