‘Diva of the dining room’ leaves behind colorful legacyCharlotte Zacher – known by most on a first-name basis – never did anything half-heartedly. She was once described in GRIT newspaper as “a listener, a joker, an adviser and a softie who whips up a free meal for anyone who really needs it.” She also wore white go-go boots as often as possible and evening gowns while she was frying up hamburgers. She was buried Thursday.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
Poring through the files on Charlotte Zacher at the Carlton County Historical Society is a little like taking a walk through the life-long Carlton resident’s illustrious – and eminently colorful – past. In it are menus from the family cafe that she operated for 66 years, postcards and greeting cards from her legion of friends and admirers, a faded “C” from a Carlton letter sweater, stacks of newspaper articles about her ever-widening fame, and photos documenting her life from the time she was a girl almost up until her death last Wednesday at the age of 99.
To be sure, Charlotte – known by most on a first-name basis – never did anything half-heartedly. She was once described in a 1984 article in GRIT newspaper as “a listener, a joker, an adviser and a softie who whips up a free meal for anyone who really needs it.” And yet, she rather fancied her image as a “woman about town” who professed to have “the best legs in Carlton County” (and if you asked her, she’d show them to you!). She wore pink marabou feathers, long evening gowns, and – as often as possible – white go-go boots as she fried hamburgers, dipped ice cream and danced her way through the small Carlton cafe.
“Dressed in a pink sequined gown, fingers adorned with glittering gems, Charlotte Zacher is to luncheonettes what Liberace was to music,” wrote reporter Brad Ring in “Minnesota Calls.” “Frying burgers in one of her trademark dresses, her white pompadour bobbing above the stove, Charlotte serves up an unexpected extravaganza with each side of fries.”
Though one might never have guessed it from her glamorous facade, Charlotte came from humble beginnings, the daughter of Swedish-German immigrants who settled in Carlton. She was born in 1912 and her father hand-dug the city’s sewers for 25 cents an hour. Her family lived in a tarpaper shack near McFarland Park, and when Charlotte was old enough to care about such things, if a boy was interested in her she wouldn’t let him walk her home lest he get a look at her house.
She originally learned the restaurant business as a young girl when her parents operated a little eatery that served the railroad depot crowd in Carlton. In 1928, her three brothers bought a streetcar for $75 and set it up as a diner at the downtown corner of Carlton where highways 45 and 210 intersect.
That was well before the day of Interstate 35, of course, so the hustle and bustle past the little cafe was brisk enough to warrant keeping the place open 24 hours a day.
Charlotte went to work for her brothers, selling five-cent glasses of beer and ice cream cones.
Business was so good that they decided to tear down the old streetcar and put up a new building on the site, which they named the Streetcar Cafe, and it was an instant success. They went through more than 60 pounds of hamburger in a single day serving meals to hungry patrons, who also slaked their thirst at a 60-foot bar in the basement of the establishment. The cafe was reportedly one of the first in the state to acquire a liquor license.
Charlotte graduated from Carlton High School with the Class of 1930 and she and her two sisters decided to go to Duluth State Teachers College. After two years of training and just on the verge of accepting a teaching position, Charlotte declared, “Teaching wasn’t my thing.” And so, when her brothers went away to war in the 1940s, Charlotte took over the family restaurant business – as well as the mortgage – at the tender age of 25. It eventually became her namesake as she rechristened it, “Charlotte’s Cafe.”
“She remembers 24-hour days and times when she didn’t have enough help, when she was pouring a beer in the basement one minute and running upstairs to make an ice cream cone the next,” wrote Ring. “But somehow, quitting was never an option.”
Charlotte soon gained local attention for her cooking, especially her pan-fried hamburgers (“They’re juicier that way!”) and her old-fashioned egg coffee, made with a fresh egg with the eggshell thrown in. Her menu featured everything from milk toast and homemade soup to T-bone steaks, and she always kept a barrel of pickles on the counter for folks to help themselves on the way in.
Soon, her fame began to take on another dimension as well. One of the things Charlotte loved most in life was dancing, and she did it every chance she could get – swinging and swaying to the big bands at the Golden Gate, VFW and the Northstar Ballroom.
At least once a week, she’d wear one of her fancy dance gowns to work at the cafe.
“I’ve always liked clothes,” she told Duluth News Tribune reporter Bob Linneman, who dubbed her, “the diva of the dining room set.” “I worked a lot and didn’t go out all that much, so I’d wear gowns to work.”
She soon attracted so much attention with her gowns, jewelry and up-swept hairdos that she decided that “more is better” and began to wear gowns and other glamorous outfits to work every day. She reportedly had over 100 gowns packed into her closet at home and decided life was uncertain and she may never get the chance to wear them out.
“After all, you can’t wear them in the nursing home!” she was fond of commenting.
Charlotte’s work day was far from glamorous, however. In a 1992 interview with reporter Larry Oakes of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Charlotte related that she rose at 5 a.m. seven days a week in her apartment at the rear of the cafe.
“She’d pad up front in her robe to warm up the stove, and start the egg coffee, breakfast rolls and soup,” wrote Oakes. “Then she headed back to get dolled up in makeup and jewelry and was ready to serve at 7 a.m.”
Often, Charlotte would spice up her breakfast service with a few dance steps from behind the counter.
“You gotta pep those guys up in the morning,” she once told Duluth News-Tribune reporter Chuck Frederick. “Everyone’s half asleep – and I’ve been up since 5 a.m.!”
Though it didn’t take long for Charlotte and her cafe to become local favorites, she began to receive more widespread attention after several newspapers began to do feature stories on her, detailing how much her customers enjoyed her good cooking and what Village Times reporter Sandy Turja referred to as her “Mae West-style of humor.” When asked why she never married, Charlotte was fond of replying, “What I always say is that good girls get married – and I’m still here!”
Her cafe seated 16 people and the walls were striped pink, Charlotte’s favorite color. They bore mementos of the history of the restaurant, gifts and photos from friends, and a coveted photo of Skip Stephenson, host of the television series “Real People,” who did a segment on the restaurant in 1982, planting a kiss on Charlotte. And of course, there were signs bearing some of Charlotte’s favorite
“People expect more of you when you’re gorgeous.” “If you’re rich, I’m single.” And “Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere!” Even at the age of 75, she would still go out to dance almost every weekend, loved to shop, rode her bike whenever weather and time permitted, and wore hot pants and go-go boots to the local grocery store. Her patrons adored her.
“Charlotte is an institution here, period,” local barber Darold Powers once stated. “I can’t imagine Carlton without her.” She was frequently named grand marshal in local parades, and treated customers to free cake on her birthday. Locals often declared, “Carlton has three holidays – Christmas, Thanksgiving and Charlotte’s birthday!”
Life wasn’t always a bed of rose-colored gowns for Charlotte, however.
Because of water problems in the basement, she had to move the bar upstairs and eventually the city reportedly took her liquor license away in favor of a municipal liquor store.
Her days were long, and when folks asked her when she was going to retire, she’d hand them her business card that said, “The difficult age has come and lit. I’m too tired to work and too broke to quit!” She sometimes wondered out loud, according to one report, that if fate had mapped her life differently, she might have become an actress. But then, someone such as Governor Rudy Perpich would walk in the door, or yet another reporter or film crew, and she was queen of the roost once again.
Charlotte was well into her eighties when her two longtime friends and helpers, Esther Johnson and Lorraine Carpenter, retired, and she decided it was time for her to start slowing down her routine as well. At age 86, she closed the doors to Charlotte’s Cafe (re-opening them briefly to celebrate her 90th birthday). After retirement, she’d spent six mornings a week at Fran’s Bakery just down the street, meeting with friends and enjoying the sociability of finally being “not just tired, but retired.” For the last five or six years, Charlotte has resided at Inter-Faith Care Center, just a few blocks north of her famous cafe. When new owners took the restaurant over late last year, she was treated to a special visit there before the newly refurbished restaurant opened its doors. Her famous sign still stands on the sidewalk outside.
“Charlotte loved music and always looked forward to attending the music programs on Wednesday afternoons,” recalled Roxanne Hedlund, activities director at Inter-Faith. “She always loved visits from her many friends, and she never lost that sense of connection with the community.”
Charlotte always said one of her goals was to outlive the old Carlton water tower, which she did by two years, and she was just two months shy of her 100th birthday at the time of her death last week. A memorial service in her honor scheduled for Wednesday was postponed until Thursday due to the snowstorm, but chances are that will not deter any of those who planned to come to pay their final respects.
Perhaps Charlotte, herself, once said it best.
“I didn’t have to go see the world. It came to see me!”
Charlotte's famous egg coffee recipe
12 cup cold water
8 tablespoons ground coffee
1 egg white
1/2 egg shell, smashed up
4 teaspoons cold water
1/4 cup cold water
Bring 12 cups of water to boiling. Mix coffee, egg white, eggshell, and 4 teaspoons of water and slowly stir into boiling water. Let come back to boil, stirring occasionally. Turn off heat and add 1/4 cup cold water. Let stand 10 minutes until grounds have settled. Pour through strainer.