Inside Leo’s Grill and Malt Shop’s Year of Expansion

The Stillwater restaurant’s projects include Gloria’s to Go, and new patio and rooftop spaces
Leo’s Grill and Malt Shop in Stillwater

Photo by Sara Hafften

A patio expansion of Leo’s Grill and Malt Shop, a cornerstone restaurant of downtown Stillwater, is now open. This is just the beginning of a series of additions to the restaurant that has focused for more than 13 years on serving classic American diner food with consistency and quality.

This summer, as part of the outdoor expansion, a takeout concession stand is set to be added to the patio. Gloria’s to Go, named after co-proprietor Cory Buettner’s mother, will specialize in soft-serve ice cream, Dole whip, hot dogs, hot pulled pork sandwiches, cold sandwiches, and salads. The stand’s egg salad is inspired by one of Gloria’s recipes that Buettner remembers eating as a kid. His mother has been involved in the tasting and testing process, narrowing menu items down and refining recipes. It will also be open “after hours” when the brick-and-mortar restaurant closes for the day.

The expansion began last February when Buettner hired general contractor Noel Malloy from Crafted Contracting and project designer Jennifer Norden from Seven Edges Design. According to Buettner, “When COVID struck, we just said, ‘You know what? Let’s pull the plug and wait and see what happens.’” So, the team decided to take a hiatus from April until October. “We learned what our strengths and weaknesses were and what employees and customers wanted out of the facility,” he says.

The newly debuted Leo’s patio space

Photo by Sara Hafften

The new expansion to Leo’s includes two other new spaces. The patio opened mid-July, which includes a 26-foot-long bench and tables. In August, Buettner expects the rooftop addition to be completed, which will offer seating for about 16 to 20 people at four tables. Finally, there will be an additional restroom for customers who choose to dine outdoors.

How Leo’s Grew

Buettner is no stranger to the foodservice industry. Since he was 16, he worked in restaurants and grocery distribution and management. Buettner grew up in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and earned a degree in business from St. Cloud State University. After graduation, he met his wife. Once they had their first child, they decided to move

closer to his parents, jokingly, “just for free babysitting.” He mentioned that it’s been great for the family to move back home for quality time.

Buettner and his father were looking to buy a restaurant for years, pursuing multiple options in the Twin Cities area that ultimately fell through. One day in 2005, they stopped in for lunch at Darla’s Grill and Malt Shop on Stillwater’s Main Street.

According to Buettner, “It was a fairly busy day. The staff was doing a really good job, but [my father] just said, ‘If this place ever comes up for sale, jump on it. It’s a great spot.’” Unfortunately, Buettner’s father passed away shortly after. A month after his passing, Buettner came across a small section in the restaurant segment of the Pioneer Press that mentioned that the owners of that same malt shop were looking to move south.

So, Buettner took his father’s advice. After a few years of operation, he did well enough to make an offer on the entire building. “So now we actually own the building that we’re in, and that’s been a real key to expansion, investing, reinvesting in the community, and reinvesting in our building,” says Buettner. Currently Buettner, his wife Naashom (co-proprietor), and one of their sons work at the restaurant. So has their other son, who is a marine reservist.

The importance of family is evident in both Buettner’s life and in his restaurant. “The main restaurant is in memory of my dad,” he says. “I think it’s kind of a throwback place. It’s the kind of a place that he would have loved when he was 16 years old, and he would have absolutely loved when he was 80 years old.”

Leo’s offerings are also available at the main restaurant’s walk-up window and the Leo’s on Wheels food truck at Maple Island Brewing. The walk-up window serves only ice cream, whereas the food truck primarily serves hot food, like burgers and fried cheese curds, and malt cups.

Workers prepare the Leo’s rooftop space

Photo by Sara Hafften

Plans for the Seasons Ahead

Seasonality was the main aspect that impacted Buettner’s decision to expand and revitalize the Leo’s space, which will add fire pits for the winter months. “Our sales were very seasonal and the worst part about that is trying to keep people gainfully employed,” he says. “So, we’re looking forward to a busy winter with our four-season porch along with the indoor dining.”

The pandemic affected other aspects of the expansion as well. According to Buettner, “The design is more comfortable for everyone. The grab-and-go concept especially was designed because we noticed people really want to just take their meal to go and

bring it home, take it to the park, or just hang out. It was definitely inspired by COVID and our reaction to COVID.” Leo’s new patio space is currently open for customers. Find Leo’s on Facebook and Instagram to stay updated on construction. The rooftop space and Gloria’s to Go are set to open in August.