By Nan Royce
DASSEL, MN Rob and Connie Walters were the faces behind the bar of Thirsty’s Tavern in Dassel for 12 years, and three days.
The couple purchased the building Nov. 1, 2002. They hosted a farewell bash Nov 4, 2017.
A shared vision and a lot of work
The Walters, both trained accountants, were in the mood to try something new all those years ago. They put in a purchase order on a store in Clear Lake, but decided it wasn’t quite right, and retracted it.
They heard about another place for sale in Dassel, but it already had a pending purchase order in place when Connie called to inquire about it.
When that purchase order fell through, the Walters jumped at the opportunity, and bought the old Dassel bar.
When they took possession of the century-old building, the back area which is now a big seating area was a filled-to-the-rafters storage room.
A tiny kitchen was hogging space at the front of the building, by the windows.
The plumbing and heating systems needed to be replaced.
And, the accountants discovered, there were no records to be had. “There were no books to look at,” Connie recalled. “No financial records.”
The Walters were not afraid of hard work, and they knew what they wanted to do. “If you build it, they will come,” Connie said, referring to the movie “Field of Dreams.”
Progressively, the Walters moved out the junk, installed an updated kitchen in the back of the building, completed necessary systems updates, and totally revamped the space.
Connie had chosen a name for the place prior to owning it.
She had seen a business dubbed “Thirsty’s” in her travels. She wanted the business name to sound established, and a little historical. Thirsty’s Tavern was born.
The dark wooden bar and chairs and tables did make the tavern feel like it had some stately character. The couple soon added other personal touches of decor.
There is a grouping of taxidermy on one wall; and large framed historical photos taken around Dassel are dotted throughout the building. Most of the wall space, however, is taken up by poster-sized compilations of customers having fun at Thirsty’s through the years.
Not customers. Friends.
From their beginning days at Thirsty’s, the Walters wanted everyone to feel welcome and respected. That attitude eventually turned the tavern into what Connie called “a social gathering point.”
Throughout the years, Thirsty’s Tavern has been the site of numerous graduation parties, bridal showers, reunions, and retirement celebrations.
“Church clubs, book club ladies they all feel comfortable coming in,” Rob said.
Over time, the Walters felt they had developed more than just a business.
“I couldn’t have anticipated the number of friendships I’ve built doing this,” Connie said. “We’ve received lots of love and support from this community.”
She said she and Rob have become so close with some of their customers that they’ve vacationed with them,
During a health scare, Connie said she was overwhelmed by the number of letters, cards, and calls of concern she received. “I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hugs I’ve gotten,” she said.
Thirsty’s Tavern patrons are so loyal, they even watch out for each other’s safety.
“If a stranger came in at closing time,” Connie said, “No one would leave me here alone until it was safe.”
She thinks that was a win-win situation. “We protected the people here,” she said. “And we knew they’d do the same.”
New adventures, and time together
Rob, who typically worked 80 to 90 hours a week, indicated it recently felt like it was time to move along.
“I want to spend more time with Connie and our family,” he said. Rob also looks forward to coaching the Dassel-Cokato High School’s girl’s basketball team.
Connie is looking forward to cutting her work hours down to just one full-time job, as a controller at an auto dealership.
The pair gave almost identical explanations for what they considered to be the best part of owning and operating Thirsty’s Tavern.
“We’re totally grateful for the support we’ve received from our customers and our community,” Connie said. “I hope they continue to support the next owners. People tell me, ‘they’ll have big shoes to fill,’ but I think they’re not big shoes, they’re just different.”
Rob said people are the best part of the job. “People come in and enjoy themselves,” he said. “It’s fun to watch people have fun.”
Although Connie thought she’d be a “basketcase” when the final closing time came, she said she feels tremendous gratitude.
“This has been a gift that’s been given to us,” she said. “I hope we’ve given that back to others.”
The future of Thirsty’s Tavern
Connie said they are scheduled to close on the sale of Thirsty’s no later than Wednesday, Nov. 15. She said the couple purchasing the tavern, Dan and Monica Ward, intend to keep both the Thirsty’s Tavern name, and its friendly ambiance.
The Walters are not certain about their successors’ time frame for re-opening the tavern, but wish them the very best.