Congratulations to Butch Bittle and his family and his employees on receiving the coveted Best Tenderloin of the Year award by the Iowa Pork Producers. It could be said that winning this award is the Nobel Prize of tenderloins.
I’ve been going to this establishment since I moved back to Iowa in 1995 (there were two owners before Butch). It was called The Store, or people would just say, “We went to Oakland Mills to eat.” Everyone knew what they meant.
Situated on the Skunk River, within spittin’ distance of an old hydroelectric spillway, a quaint sign on the side of the building stated simply, “Best tenderloin by a dam site!” You couldn’t help but smile when you read that.
I had just moved to Mt. Pleasant and was working second shift in a machine shop. I met an old fella who offered to take me to breakfast. He said about the only place to get a “real breakfast” was The Store. So we went.
It was spring, and it was so humid, it felt (and sounded) like the screen door to The Store was alive with algae. It probably was. But one step inside — the aroma of coffee, the friendliness of the owner and clientele, and crispness of the hash browns — I was hooked.
I’ve been going ever since. Now known as the River Rock Cafe, whenever I have company, a “must stop” is always Oakland Mills. People still say, “Let’s take ‘em to Oakland Mills.” It has great homemade pie, too.
A few years ago, when I was a little younger (and crazier), on Sunday morning, when I went for my “long jog,” I would run from Mt. Pleasant to Oakland Mills and back. Something more than 10 miles, I called it my “half-marathon distance.”
Oakland Mills and The Store was about halfway. I would run up to the kitchen window and tap. Whoever was cook’n would just shake their head and wave me in. I would enter through the side door, all sweaty and stinky in my jogging shorts, get a glass of water, and use the restroom.
Wide-eyed customers stared. I would usually get asked, “Let me get this straight — you ran from Mt. Pleasant?” “Yep,” I would say, then take off and jog the River Road, up “Heart-Attack Hill,” back to Mt. Pleasant.
It took perseverance to run that hill, just like Butch and his restaurant.
When the water rises on the Skunk River at Oakland Mills, it is a local attraction. Old timers speculate on when the river will crest (Butch, because his business depends on it, seems to be the best prognosticator). Bow-fisher people line the banks in droves, shooting at ripples in the water, which may or may not be a carp, spoonbill, or water snake.
One thing I admire about Butch Bittle (besides his cookin’), is that he and the River Rock Cafe have survived numerous floods of the Skunk River. Floodwater has actually flowed right through his cafe. Butch points to a spot in front of the cash register, “The carp were jumpin’ right there!”
Catastrophes such as this would finish most restauranteurs. Not Butch. When the water is rising, he packs his equipment out, ties down the propane tank, and waits ‘er out. When the water goes down, he disinfects the building, rebuilds the driveway, and opens ‘er back up.
Butch is a survivor.
In a way, we (all of Butch’s clientele) feel a personal relationship to Butch and his family and the employees of the cafe. From the people who help him pack the equipment out when the water rises, and the people who nominated him for the best tenderloin award, and the people who are waiting to eat when water goes back down, we are all part of the story.
A new sign might read, “It Rocks @ the River Rock Cafe.”