Joe Rickenbach spent the Sunday before Easter the way he spent all of his working days: in an Embers restaurant. In this case, as the owner of the last Embers, on its last day before closing for good, ending a 65-year run for the chain that once numbered 29 sites in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas.
Rickenbach and his family and staff served an overflow crowd, many of whom showed up to dine and say goodbye to the Fridley institution that goes back 57 years (50 at its present Central Avenue location). What was usually a 20-minute wait for tables on weekends stretched to two hours, with diners patiently gathered outside, next to the full parking lot. Several of those lucky enough to be seated wore Embers tee shirts, and the 13-member staff (five of whom were family members) scurried to deliver pancakes, everything skillets, and Emberger Royals. The blackboard behind the cash register listed the specials for the day: breakfast melt, chicken Alfredo, corn chowder and turkey wild rice.
Embers for the Rickenbachs has definitely been a family affair. As Joe describes it, “My mother Noreen was the first to work for Embers. She was taking tickets at the Heights Theater when the founders of Embers, Henry Krystal and Carl Birnberg, stopped by for a movie. They offered her a job, and she went to work at the very first Embers, at Minnehaha and Lake Street, in 1956.”
Rickenbach’s father (also Joe, but everyone calls him Ricky) got a call from an Army buddy in 1958, telling him that a new restaurant chain in Minnesota was hiring. Joe left Reading, Penn., came to Minneapolis and started as a janitor at the Highland Park location, and met Noreen. He worked for Embers for 29 years, leaving in 1986 as vice president in charge of the 19 in-town restaurants. He got 15-year-old Joe Jr. a job at the Northtown Embers in 1978. In 1998, Embers began to franchise their restaurants, and Joe Jr. and his wife Denise bought the Fridley location, renaming it “Ricky’s Embers America.”
When news of the restaurant’s pending closing and sale came out last month, its website filled up with notes of praise and sadness; many responses recalled how Ricky’s Embers had been part of their lives for decades, and how much they will miss its absence. One email said, “We Love U! Can’t Embers just move somewhere else?” Another recalled the Thursday “cruise nights,” where patrons arrived at the restaurant in their vintage cars to eat and hang out in the parking lot. Yet another noted, “Our favorite restaurant, a place we know never disappoints. Food is always wonderful as well as the staff…God’s blessings to you all at Embers.”
On that Sunday afternoon, March 28, Rickenbach mixed seating, cooking and greeting customers and friends, including television personality Nancy Nelson, who appeared in an Embers TV commercial in 1971. He said people had been coming in large numbers since the closing was announced, and that Sunday’s crowd was two to three times what an average Sunday’s might be.
He said he hadn’t been looking to sell the restaurant, turning down previous offers, and the business held on through the COVID pandemic. But even before COVID, he got what he called “a good offer,” and said that, at age 56, “the timing was right. I’ve been involved with Embers for 43 years; it’s all I’ve ever done.” He said the developer indicated that a bank would be built on the site.
Asked about his own future, he said, “At least for the present, Denise and I are going to take it easy for now. No big plans. Just relax for a while.”
Below: Joe Rickenbach with mother Noreen. Embers’ staff members were busy all day. The last day at Ricky’s Embers America was “two to three times the average Sunday’s crowd.” Patrons waited outside for a chance to be seated. (Photos by Mark Peterson)