There are a number of loose beef meat sandwich places around Iowa and Minnesota. People can get a pretty parochial view of the ones they like the best. It seems that people in Ottumwa, IA feel the Canteen makes the best loose meat sandwiches, while those who grew up in Marshalltown, IA feel that Taylor's Maid-Rite is the best. Then there are people - like me - who grew up in Newton, IA who think the ones at Mr. Dan's Sandwich Shop - the oldest continuous Maid-Rite diner in existence - are the best of the lot. Well, there's a number of people who hail from Austin, MN who feel that the loose meat sandwiches from Tendermaid are the best in the world. On a trip to Minnesota recently, I stopped into Tendermaid to see how good their loose meat sandwiches really are.
Mildred Coffin grew up in Central Iowa near the town of LeGrand in the early 1900's in a home that had neither electricity or working plumbing. After graduating from high school in 1928, she moved to nearby Marshalltown to work at a Woolworth's department store. She met Jerry Thatcher in Marshalltown and the couple soon married. But being that it was the height of the Great Depression, the two eked out a modest living in Marshalltown.
One of the more popular eateries at the time in Marshalltown was the aforementioned Taylor's Maid-Rite, started in 1928 by Don Taylor, a resident of Newton who liked the Maid-Rite shop there so much that he moved to Marshalltown to start his own. The Thatcher's ate at Taylor's Maid-Rite many times over the years and as the economy was recovering in the late 30's, they decided to open their own Maid-Rite-style shop in another Midwestern town.
They looked at a handful of industrial towns in Iowa and Minnesota before deciding upon the Southern Minnesota city of Austin, home of Hormel Foods. Jerry Thatcher diligently surveyed the downtown business climate, walking the streets of the city and counting cars at intersections before finding a spot that he felt would be highly visible with a high traffic count for both cars and pedestrians. The Thatchers opened the Tendermaid Sandwich Shop in 1938, quickly becoming a social hub for Austin famous for their loose meat sandwiches and Mildred's pies. The Thatcher's ended up running the Tendermaid for 40 years before selling the business in 1968 and retiring. (Jerry Thatcher died a number of years ago, but Mildred lived to the grand old age of 101 before passing away in 2013.)
The restaurant went through a number of owners over the next nearly 30 years before Gary and Sara White took over the little restaurant. The White's were friends with Jerry and Mildred Thatcher's son, Bob, who lived in the same neighborhood. When they took over in 1997, they didn't change much - other than adding some condiments to the mix. They kept the place just about the same as it was when the Thatcher family had it for 40 years.
One of the things that Sara White did implement was a food eating challenge where people had to consume 10 Tendermaid sandwiches, a bag of potato chips, an ice cream malt and 64 ounces of water in under 30 minutes. In 1999, a young lady by the name of Amanda Dunning finished 10 Tendermaid sandwiches along with the chips, malt and water in 28 minutes. That record stood for 13 years before Thomas Herrera finished the task in 23 minutes, but he consumed 11 of the Tendermaid's to take possession of the record.
In September 2014, Ethan Teske (pictured right - photo courtesy Austin Daily Herald) made the trip from Mankato and devoured 12 Tendermaid's along with the water, chips and malt in 21 minutes. That record was subsequently broken less than a year later by a St. Cloud man - Jeremiah Foster - who downed 13 of the Tendermaid sandwiches, along with the chips, malt and water. Foster, who had partaken in over 80 food challenges to that point, finished the feat in 23 minutes.
I wasn't going to be taking part in any food challenges on this day. I just wanted to see how good their loose meat sandwiches were. I found the Tendermaid in the same spot that Jerry Thatcher decreed would be the best spot for their little restaurant nearly 80 years ago at the corner of 4th Ave. NE and 2nd St. NE in downtown Austin. (see map) It was just before the lunch rush when I stopped in.
And it was probably a good thing. The Tendermaid is not very big. In fact, it reminded me very much of the Canteen in Ottumwa. It was a small rectangular counter with about a dozen seats. There were just about six people in the place when I walked in including two young ladies sitting near me, one of whom was trying her first Tendermaid with her friend who was from Austin.
The steaming bins were located in the center of the room between the counters. These looked like the same bins used at the other places like the ones in Newton, Marshalltown and Ottumwa. The steam was wafting away from the meat in the bin.
The menu was located on the wall on a circa-1970's Pepsi menu board. They had a hamburger, cheeseburger, chili-cheeseburger, and bacon-cheeseburger on the menu, as well as a number of malts and shakes. They don't have a fryer at the Tendermaid, so only potato chips are available as a side.
They also had a specialty sandwich menu over the steam bins. The Western Burger featured barbecue sauce, pepper jack cheese, and bacon on top, while the Bacon Ranch Burger had - naturally, bacon, ranch dressing and American cheese on top. The Tender Island Burger was topped with Thousand Island dressing and American cheese. Condiments and toppings included jalapeños, Sriracha sauce, mozzarella cheese and pickle relish
Judy was my server - it turns out that she is the sister-in-law of Sara White who just happened to be holding court in the center of the business. I ordered up a Tendermaid with cheese - ketchup, mustard, onions and pickle on the sandwich. It wasn't all that big and I didn't think of it as much of a good value at $4.15. I would equate it to the size of a Joey-Rite, what Mr. Dan's Sandwich Shop in Newton calls their smaller Maid-Rite sandwich. The taste, however, was very good. The beef was moist and crumbly with a great flavor to it. The American cheese was melted slightly into the meat and the onions were strong and pungent.
It didn't take me long to finish my Tendermaid and almost as soon as I finished the last bite of the sandwich, Judy turned to me and asked if I wanted another one. I gave her a "thumbs-up" to signify that I did want another. Quite honestly, they weren't all that big and if I were really hungry when I was there, I could easily finish three of them. The second one was just as good as the first one.
While I didn't think the Tendermaid loose-meat sandwiches were that good of a value, I still thought they were very good, taste wise. It's easy to see why people who grew up in Austin think the Tendermaid's are best of all the loose meat sandwich, the same way people who are from places like Ottumwa, Marshalltown and Newton in Iowa think highly of their loose meat sandwich places. The Tendermaid was a nice little place with a lot of history and a good loose meat burger.