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When Patrick Strong purchased the Range Line Inn in Mequon from his brother in 1985, he thought he was solely making an investment. Turns out, he was actually committing to a career and a lifestyle as restaurant operator.
"Once I got into the environment, I realized that, to do it right, it needs a lot of tender loving care and I couldn’t do that from a distance," says Strong. "So I have been here every day since I bought the place."
Strong’s personal touch has paid off and his restaurant – somewhat distanced from the cluster of competing popular chain eateries in the neighborhood – continues to thrive.
Strong says neighborhood support is the top reason why the Range Line Inn continues to succeed. Familiarity with the space and staff also play a large role.
"This is very much a neighborhood place. We have been supported by locals since day one," he says. "I have never had a time when I questioned if we could pay the bills. I have made a living, my staff has made a living."
Strong – who has never advertised or offered a Groupon – has served three generations of customers since he took over the business and knows the names of 95 percent of them. The care and respect, he says, goes both ways.
"My waitresses know what Joe wants to drink or what his food idiosyncrasies are and in turn, many of my customers treat the staff like family," he says.
When a new restaurant opens in the neighborhood, Strong says he might feel a little dip, but never a setback.
"Everybody tries a new place, but they always seem to come back home," he says.
The loyalty of the Range Line Inn’s customers is particularly important because – even though the restaurant is located on a busy road – it’s a destination restaurant, not one people seem to spontaneously visit.
Also, because with the word "inn" in the name, it is commonly mistaken for a B&B.
"People walk in a couple times a year with suitcases, wondering if rooms are available," says Strong.
However, the building, built in the 1840s, was an inn at one time that housed local school teachers. It was also a church, a mail handling and telegraph office, a stable and possibly a safe stop for escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad.
The space also served as a dance hall and music venue for an ongoing Dixieland jazz event. Strong tended bar during a few of these concerts in the ‘70s when his brother was still the owner.
"People would come from everywhere for this," says Strong, who grew up in Brookfield but now lives in Mequon.
The establishment was originally called the Half Way Inn because it was half way between Milwaukee and Port Washington and, therefore, it was the perfect place for weary travelers – who were on horseback – to make a pit stop.
Today, the Range Line Inn’s mascot is a horse, Stymie, who is honored with a picture on the wall.
"Many people have attempted to buy it," he says. "A guy even tried to steal it once."
The consistency of the Range Line Inn’s food is important to customers and so the menu has changed very little over the years, offering a mix of entrees ($17.95-$29.95), salads and sandwiches ($8.95-$10.95).
There’s also a popular lobster tail special ($23.95) every Wednesday night from April until the night before Thanksgiving. The fish fry ($14.95-$15.95) offers perch, cod and haddock and features the classic, yet becoming hard-to-find, potato pancakes.
The Range Line Inn is open from Tuesday through Saturday nights. When Strong first took over the business, it was open seven days a week for lunch and dinner and he was working 100 hours a week.
However, lunch dining patterns changed – basically people started eating and drinking less in the middle of the day – and by the late '80s, it no longer made financial sense to stay open for lunch.
"Although, a woman just pulled up today and asked if we were open for lunch. I told her we hadn’t been open for lunch in 25 years, but maybe we would be if she had come a little more often," jokes Strong.
Another aspect of the Range Line Inn that has changed over the years is the amount of wine that’s consumed. In 1985, the bar had three gallons of wine – chablis, burgundy and rose – and now they have a large selection of wine, which outsells beer and cocktails two-to-one.
Strong says he has a lot of crazy and fun stories from his 28 years as owner and operator of the Range Line Inn, but he isn’t going to share them just yet.
"You’re going to have to wait for my book," he says, smiling. "But I will say this: the best part of all of this are the friends I made here, the support of the neighborhood and a very loyal and competent staff. You just don’t see that. I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the restaurant business."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.