Step into Charlie’s Eatery & Pub, and you’ll be greeted by a few things -- the bustle of a friendly waitstaff, the faint “thock” of golf clubs next door and, if you’re luck, Charlie himself.
Charlie Brannon, who left northern Iowa 45 years ago for his first restaurant job, has spent most of his life in the business of food. The owner and proprietor of the restaurant still spends the brunt of his time in his restaurant -- and not tucked away in an office, as you might imagine. And if you sit down with him, he has plenty to share.
Here’s what Brannon’s learned.
Look for new opportunities. After graduating from the University of Northern Iowa with a degree in management and marketing, Brannon interviewed for management roles at the local drug store, shoe companies, and General Motors.
However, an offer came up at Bridgeman’s, Inc. He took it because it paid the most -- and soon, he was opening stores for the ice cream chain all over the Midwest -- including Rochester. But at age 35, Brannon -- young and ambitious -- realized the rewards of entrepreneurship were bigger than working for a corporation.
He became the proprietor of Crown Restaurant & Lounge, located in the Blondell Motel across from St. Marys. And there he stayed through ever-shifting clientele and the expansion of downtown -- with occasional forays out other properties he co-owned (Sandy Point Supper Club in Oronoco, several Grills sprinkled around town).
The Crown Restaurant became “Charlie’s Eatery & Pub” in 2012. “I thought I might as well name it after myself,” Brannon jokes. “So that I can always remember where I have to go.”
And in 2016, when the building was shuttered, the restaurant moved to its current location at 1654 US-52, Rochester. It was a shift in scale, and also a move away from the consistent downtown crowd.
“I wasn’t awestruck by it, but 250 seats,” he says, gesturing around. “How do I get that much business?”
Keep it simple, know what you do best. Turns out, it wasn’t so difficult to fill the seats. Brannon brought dedicated customers with him from place to place.
“43,000 -- I think that was the population when I moved in (to Rochester),” he says. “It was the biggest city I ever lived in.” But in 2020, Rochester doesn’t feel like it’s grown much to Brannon -- instead, he’s kept a tight-knit community around him through public engagement (more on that later) and easy, crowd-pleasing fare.
“The chefs can offer ideas, but I’ve got to know how to make (the dishes),” Brannon says. “If you offer all the food groups and a variety, you can run a good restaurant.” Much of that comes down to the advice of his father, a farmer. “My dad always said, ‘You know, Charlie -- if you can’t pronounce it, you can’t eat it.”
The Eatery & Pub is also one of the few places that has live music outside of downtown, he says, as well as Bingo nights, Sunday brunch, and Friday night fish fries.
Overall, his clientele is local. I think of us as being a little bit homespun here,” Brannon says. “People come here for their daily hibernation before they go home after work.”
Teamwork makes the dream work. Brannon brought 10 of his 12 employees with him from the downtown location. Some of the staff today have been with him since ‘87 -- including one 44-year-old “young gentleman” Brannon hired at age 14.
“In this business, people talk about turnover with their employees, and I have it, but I’ve also always had this core group that’ll support me,” he says. “I feel very blessed.”
That loyalty may be because of Brannon’s level of involvement. Even though his name’s on the sign, he wipes down tables and serves drinks as needed. Which, he says, can be fun when it gives him a chance to meet newcomers. “Some people now, they whisper and point -- ‘That’s Charlie!’” he says.
Give back. Brannon’s never believed in running a business behind the scenes. While some owners write out plans that keep them in the kitchen or office all day, he argues that if you want the whole town to come visit you, first you have to be part of the town.
“The thing is, I appreciate the city of Rochester,” he says. “It’s the community that makes the business, and the community has been very, very nice to me.”
Which is why Brannon’s resume is full of volunteer positions. The Rochester Chamber Diplomats and Ambassadors, from which he just stepped down as chair. The Rochester JCs (or Jaycees, which you know from their Easter egg hunts, 4th of July children’s parade, and more). He says it was “an honor” to be the president of the Rochester group in its 50th year.
Brannon was a vendor at the first Rochesterfest, and joined the board back in 2009. He chaired the celebration in 2018.
But the most important part of his community? It’s still the customers.
“They are literally the bread and butter of my operation,” Brannon says.