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Ralph's reflects heritage of Midwest dining with locally grown, homemade foods

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 11/21/2012 1:13 PM

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Ralph's Garden Cafe

5 South Federal, Mason City, Iowa

Owners: Kirk and Kathy Johnson

Hours: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. seven days a week and 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays

"I say we're a 'grandma style' restaurant," said Ralph's manager Audrey Sparks. "About 90 percent of what we serve is made from scratch, and we try to feature locally grown and naturally grown foods as much as we can."

The daily special with a side (soup, five-cheese macaroni, maple-baked beans or salad) and casserole bread or a sandwich with a side are about $8.

Contact Ralph's at (641) 422-9902,, on Facebook at, email

MASON CITY, Iowa — Ralph's Garden Cafe is named after owner Kathy Johnson's father, Ralph.

"I like to say that Ralph was green before green was cool," said manager Audrey Sparks. "Kathy grew up in a home that was very environmentally friendly. They grew their own food, canned, recycled, composted and hunted. The family was very in tune with the environment, and they (owners Kirk and Kathy Johnson) wanted to bring that into the restaurant."

Black and white photos of Ralph, who lived his life in northern Minnesota and hunted and gardened into his 90s, decorate the restaurant's green walls.

"As a tribute to Ralph, we are planting a 'few seeds' in Ralph's Garden Cafe," Kathy wrote on the cafe's website. "Our mission is to re-connect what is on our dinner plate with our environment by simply and elegantly serving locally grown homemade foods that reflect our rich heritage of Midwest dining."

Foods served at the restaurant come from local farms whenever possible. Beef, pork and sausage come from Sugar Creek Farm in Osage. Elsbernd Farm at Mason City provides chicken and eggs. Beer comes from Worth County Brewing in Northwood. Kalke Honey products are sold at the restaurant as well as being used in foods. North Iowa Berries and More sells Ralph's a variety of vegetables.

Ralph's prepares a daily special, which is on the cafe's website and Facebook page. Meat loaf, raspberry chicken salad, chicken and wild rice casserole, vegetable lasagna and parchment fish are some of the selections.

Three soups are offered daily along with a variety of salads, house sandwiches and a make-your-own sandwich option. The specialty sandwiches are named after Johnson family members as well as several employees. Fixings consist of meats, cheeses, spreads, vegetables and bread baked by Ralph's baker. All sandwiches can be grilled.

During the week a breakfast menu of baked goods, quiche, biscuits and gravy and corn beef hash and poached eggs is available. Saturdays there is a rotating ethnic breakfast — Scandinavian, German and all American are some of the choices. Sundays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. features a champagne brunch.

Fresh-baked cookies, bars, cakes, pies, rolls and scones are available throughout the day.

The evening menu has a special, which could be meat loaf, Greek chicken or blackened salmon, as well as soups, salads and sandwiches. Sometimes there is live music in the evenings.

Sparks, who worked for the Johnsons at their coffee shop and has been with Ralph's since before it opened 2 1/2 years ago, manages a staff of eight to 10.

"I love working here," Sparks said. "The owners are amazing, we have a versatile staff, and we develop personal relationships with our customers. It's like family."

Ralph's is across the street from the historic and newly renovated Park Inn which was designed and built by Frank Lloyd Wright.

"We get customers from around the world who have come to see the hotel," Sparks said.