Tom Honl enjoys serving the gang at Fritz’ Place
During 40 years in the same business, one gets accustomed to peoples’ ways, says Tom Honl, owner and operator of Fritz’ Place in Springfield the past four decades.
“I can set my clock by the time various people come in here,” Tom said during a recent interview. “I don’t ask people what they want. I know what they want when they walk in the door. It’s not often they change their mind. Mostly they order the same thing every day.”
Honl’s business is a solo operation. Tom is chief cook and bottle washer. He’s purchasing agent, maintenance man, technician and custodian, and whatever else needs doing.
How does he do it?
“I run,” he says. Frying burgers, pouring coffee and greeting customers, he also listens with one ear to conversations, because his customers expect a certain amount of witticisms from him. “Oh yes,” he said, “I’ve got to throw in my two cents’ worth.”
He prefers his workplace to be a one-man show. It’s a small place and he claims that anyone trying to help simply gets in his way. “I just as soon do it alone,” he says.
He considers himself fortunate that he’s a small guy and can work quickly. “So far, it’s working really well,” he says. “I’m thankful I don’t have any leg problems.”
“I’m very fortunate to have good health,” Tom said, proudly. “I’ve been in business 40 years and I missed work only two days because of sickness during those 40 years and both were self-inflicted,” he admitted.
The prospect of running your own business has some obvious appeal. Being his own boss lets him set his own schedules – at least theoretically. He opens his place at 5:00 a.m. and closes at about 1 p.m.
The customers come in waves. The first group of customers arrives at 5 a.m. when he opens the door. The second wave comes at about 6 o’clock. At 7:00, a third wave arrives, including 12-20 women who gather in a group around a couple of tables pulled together to create one long table.
Those women started coming to Fritz’ Place when the neighboring restaurant on South Marshall Avenue closed.
“They came and asked if they could come over here,” Tom recalled. “I’m running a business here,” he told them, “Of course, you can come in!”
Not so many years ago, Fritz’ Place was a place for men, and patronized by only a few women.
In the beginning the women were given lots of funny looks from the men, “They still do when the women start giggling,” Tom said. “It’s pretty funny. It’s really unique. I’m glad they started coming here because it’s added some interest. It’s just more fun this way.”
Burgers, basically, are what people come to Fritz’ Place for, Tom says.
They also come for coffee that is 50 cents a cup. He serves lots of fried egg sandwiches with the coffee. Customers can also get ham, sausage patties, and grilled cheese sandwiches — all cooked on the grill.
Tom hears various descriptions and names for his burgers because they are small. “Yeah, they give me a lot of grief about my burgers,” Tom acknowledged. “I do that for a reason.” He’s able to serve a lot more people if he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time tending the food on the grill.
Tom considers much of the conversation about his burgers as good-natured ribbing. “I don’t care so much that my customers give me grief, because they keep coming back,” he said. “What I don’t like is when I hear it on the street from people who have never had one.”
All the burgers that Tom serves are from fresh meat from Lang’s Meat Market. “That’s why they are as good as they are,” he says. All his foods are fresh and refrigerated — nothing’s canned or frozen.
Tom claims he’s gotten a good education behind the bar. “They figure I should know a lot about farming because I hear a lot about it,” he noted.
Maybe, he could be a counselor. “There’s been lots of counseling going on in this place,” he said laughting.
Fritz’ Place is filled with lively conversations. “There’s always something going on,” Tom says. Whatever’s going on in the community, they talk about it in Fritz’ Place. “Most everything I hear I don’t repeat because I don’t know if it’ true or not,” Tom added.
A bit of history
Tom purchased the family business on April 1, 1975.
The history of the business is a bit sketchy. Tom’s been told that the business was begun by a Lawrenz, and then purchased and operated by Bony Weller for many years. Fritz Honl purchased the bar/café in 1954 and operated it until his death in 1972. Fritz’ wife, Ardella (Dolly), operated the business for a couple of years until son Tom bought it on April 1, 1975.
Years ago, Fritz’ Place opened at 6 a.m. and closed at 10 p.m. seven days a week. It was a gathering place for men of all ages. It provided a gathering place for morning and afternoon sessions of cards and conversation for elderly men. Young men came in to play pool at day’s end. Fritz’ Place was open on Sundays, too. “Sunday business was good. They sold lots of 3.2 beer those days,” Tom recalled. Fritz’ Place closed Sundays after the Sunday Liquor Law took effect
After six months in business, Tom decided to close Fritz’ Place on Sundays.
The place was open on Saturdays until Tom took a part-time job with the U.S. Postal Service. He delivered mail on the rural route — mostly on Saturdays. He worked at that 17 years. “I needed more money when the kids were growing up and at home, helping them through school,” he said.
Tom Honl graduated from Springfield High School in 1967, he joined the National Guard and spent six months in active service, and then operated a pizza joint, Ye Ol’ Pizza Inn along Highway 15 on the south end of New Ulm. He sold insurance briefly, then went to work as a truck driver for Schell’s Brewery.
“I bought the business because Mom wanted to get out of it,” Tom said “I was working in New Ulm at the time. I was bouncing around in different jobs because I didn’t know for sure what I wanted to do. I bought this place, but my intention was to do something else. I decided to operate it until something better came along.”
But, nothing better came along.
“I’m glad I stayed here. “I met a lot of people here and I’ve made a lot of friends,” Tom said.
At age 67, Honl’s not thinking about retirement. “I don’t have any retirement benefits, so I’ll stay here,” he said. “It’s really not hard work. I just have to be here.”
“I don’t like getting up so early and opening at 5:00. I might cut back and open at 6:00. “But, I’ll be here,” he concluded.