Dave Haase doesn’t take vacations.
He works 17 hours every day running a restaurant called Uncle Dave’s Cafe on Highway 51 just outside Portage.
Instead, Haase said he enjoys chatting with customers in a family-oriented atmosphere themed after a 1950s and ‘60s era diner serving hand-cut steaks, fish fries, homemade onion rings and other foods made from scratch.
“It’s like when you go to grandma’s house,” Haase said. “That’s the kind of food you get.”
The diner is open from 4 a.m. until 9 p.m. most days. The exception is Sundays, the only day of the week the restaurant closes around 2 p.m.
But if a customer comes by after hours looking for a good meal served with a smile, Haase said he welcomes them in all the same as long as he’s there.
“It’s great place to bring a family,” customer Dennis Bopp of Portage said.
Bopp said he was disappointed when Levee Restaurant closed. Then he noticed a new owner had moved in and decided to check out the redesigned place.
He’s been coming back regularly since.
“Dave gets an A-plus,” Bopp said.
Uncle Dave’s Cafe opened Dec. 5 after a significant setback.
On Aug. 27, 2018, Haase said the building was struck by lighting, which caused $30,000 in damage and delayed the timetable for getting the diner up and running again.
Haase also rents out four efficiency apartments in a former motel building behind the restaurant at N6794 on Highway 51.
In a way, the adjacent apartment building gives the diner a bed and breakfast feel, he said.
Haase, 58, grew up in the village of Marshall in Dane County and went on to serve in the U.S. Army cooking for soldiers.
After he returned to civilian life, Haase owned four restaurants − one in Marshall, two in Marshfield and another in Sun Prairie − before moving to Portage.
Haase said his daughter Paula helped him run several prior restaurants before she became a registered nurse and began working in Madison. Their goal always has been to provide families a comfortable place to have a nice meal, Haase said.
Haase runs the new restaurant with those same values and help from his girlfriend.
Michele Torgerson said she moved from her hometown of Mukwonago to Portage three months ago after she and Haase began dating.
Torgerson said many customers return often to get a good meal, and the atmosphere blending the styles of a family kitchen and 20th century classic diner gives the restaurant a comfortable feel for people.
Haase said finding reliable staff can be a challenge.
Whether people can cook excellent food is important, but the no. 1 value in his mind is that customers are always right and should be treated kindly. Having coffee and a conversation with customers is one way to make them feel at home.
“You’ve got to make it your best,” Haase said. “I enjoy it.”