New Elk Horn Restaurant Wins First Ever Rural Operator Award

(photo contributed)

Pictured are Grace On Main co-owners Mike and Ilee Muller, who were recently nominated and won the Rural Operator of the Year Award from the Iowa Restaurant Association.

ELK HORN – It was thanks to a friend that Mike Muller and his family are living in Elk Horn and operating the award winning restaurant “Grace On Main.” “My closest friend lives here with his family and his in-laws, and they’re the owners of the Norse Horse Tavern here in Elk Horn,” Muller said. “The former (Flour Mill restaurant in Elk Horn) came up for sale, and Dave Thompson, my friend’s father-in-law ended up purchasing it.”

Muller, meanwhile, was living with his family in California, and while he had previously worked in the restaurant business, he was currently working for the city of Sacramento in the utility department.

Thompson flew out to California and offered Muller an opportunity.

“He asked me if I wanted to run a restaurant,” he said. “We met, and we talked about it. I’ve always wanted to do this, and my wife said this is the perfect time.”

So the family came out, got settled, and Muller went back to California to finish his work with the city. He came back the day before Christmas, relaxed for about a week, and then spent time remodeling the restaurant, now known as “Grace On Main.”

The restaurant was named “Rural Operator of the Year,” by the Iowa Restaurant Association on Oct. 1. The award recognizes “the role and importance of restaurants and taverns in Iowa communities with fewer than 1,000 people.”

Jessica Dunker, President of the Iowa Restaurant Association, said multiple people in Elk Horn nominated the restaurant for the award, and they received it because they had such a compelling story.

“What we were looking for (in selecting an award winner) was someone who was really bringing a unique, independent restaurant concept into a small community because it’s a big risk,” Dunker said. “Their story was exceptionally compelling. They visited Elk Horn, and they realized that the lifestyle of small town Iowa was what they wanted for their family and themselves. Sometimes small towns get this reputation for not being ‘embracing’ of new people, but that community (has) really rallied around and made it possible for them to open.”

Muller said he believes a customer nominated the restaurant and he was surprised to be contacted by officials with the association.

“Everything was really vague, because they didn’t want anything getting out until it was announced Oct. 1,” he said. “We received an email (to schedule) an appointment for the president of the Iowa Restaurant Association to come out. And she came out and we spoke about the award and the restaurant.”

An awards ceremony is scheduled for Nov. 16, and Muller said he is planning on attending, however, he said, operating the restaurant is not about getting awards. It’s more about doing something he loves to do.

“I’ve always said from the beginning I just want to make people fat and happy,” he said. “I just want people to be able to try new things. I want people to enjoy what they eat.”

The restaurant opened in March at 4234 Main Street in Elk Horn, but promptly had to close due to COVID-19. However, they started offering carry out orders, and have done that since March.

Now they offer both to go orders and a dine in option.

The restaurant offers Italian style food, including pizza and pasta, and is open : Wednesdays — 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursdays — 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Fridays -5 to 8 p.m.; Saturdays — noon to 8 p.m. They are closed Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays.

Muller says the restaurant is truly a family owned business as he and wife Ilee are co-owners, their two daughters work there, and other employees include a father and son, and a friend of his mother’s who moved to Elk Horn from Omaha.

“We’re actually doing well,” he said about the response to the restaurant. “The support of the community — There’s not enough I can say about it. Between that and all of God’s blessing that we’ve had, it’s just been an amazing ride.”