MAPLEWOOD — Gulden's Restaurant & Bar in Maplewood is one of the last family-owned restaurants in the Twin Cities.
And Owner Mike Gengler has kept Gulden's afloat for 21 years, despite challenges such as road construction, a difficult economy, and now a much more personal challenge: cancer.
Last October, at age 51, the Stillwater resident went in "a year late" for his 50-year-old physical. During a routine colonoscopy, Gengler said everything was going fine when suddenly "the whole mood in the room changed." When he asked what was wrong, they told him he had colon cancer.
A week later he had surgery to remove two feet of his colon. An infection kept him in the hospital for 11 days and took three months to heal. Then after eight rounds of chemotherapy, Gengler's doctors found a second cancer - multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells that affects bones and bone marrow.
Once he regained his strength following the chemo, Gengler had surgery in July for a hernia caused by his colon surgery. Now, finally, he's back at Gulden's for about half of each day. He's receiving a monthly treatment for his myeloma and will need a stem cell transplant in the near future that will again keep him away from the restaurant for several months.
Gengler said he never really thought about how he wanted to live his life until he was diagnosed with cancer, and then he had a big realization. "I don't want to go to Africa or go around the world in a canoe. I just want to come to work," he said.
Now 52, Gengler had been in the restaurant business since 15 when he began working at Bridgeman's Ice Cream in Columbia Heights. A 1977 graduate of Columbia Heights High School, Gengler bypassed college and instead began a career with restaurant chain The Ground Round.
In the late 1980s he and his wife Brenda were in what she called "a transitional period" so the couple started looking at restaurants to buy.
"I told him, ‘It has always been your dream. Let's go look,'" she said. They soon found Gulden's, a restaurant on Highway 61 that had been in the neighborhood since 1934. They jumped at the opportunity and have been sole owners since 1990.
Gulden's truly is a family business. Gengler is the "face" of the restaurant, greeting and seating customers.
"If you walk in, you're gonna walk in to me," he said. "I run the floor, and Brenda runs the business." While Gengler's daughter Jessie Rae, 29, has never worked for the restaurant, Makenna, 18, is a server and Dayna, 15, busses tables.
When Gengler was diagnosed with cancer last year, he and Brenda asked a group of five loyal, long-time employees to help take the reins of the business.
"Everyone just stepped up to the plate," he said, noting with a chuckle that the five are now fully aware of how complex and difficult it is to run all aspects of a restaurant.
He credits Guldens' loyal clientele with keeping the restaurant alive through the years. "It's like their second home," Brenda said.
"I hate to say it, but I didn't realize what I'd built until I got sick," Gengler said. He has received about 500 cards, and friends and customers have offered unconditional support. He called it "dying without dying."
"I'm just a simple guy. Good food, good service, and a good time. That's how simple it is to me." And he wants his customers to know that "Gulden's is staying. I want it to keep going whether I can keep it going or not," he said. But, he noted, "Six months ago they told me I have 10 good years left," so Gengler doesn't feel like he's going anywhere anytime soon. Right now he's excited to roll out a new menu and be at work greeting his customers every day.
There is only one thing he'd ask of people who want to help. "All I want them to do is keep coming here," he said. "That's what would mean the most to me."