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Capitol Cafe carries on after patriarch passes away

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Kalie Olson hands Ethan Gladue his lunch: a BBQ pulled pork sandwich

There’s one place at the state Capitol that brings people together, regardless of their party or politics. It’s a place they can gather to refuel and recharge - the Capitol Cafe.

The café can be a respite from the constant wheeling and dealings of the state capitol. There is some behind-the-scenes business done here as lawmakers mingle.

But behind the counter, the pace is fast.

Cooks work on an array of tempting meals, while Kalie Olson takes customer orders. The café offers comfort foods to counter some of the contentious business that takes place several stories overhead.

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Lee Strubinger
Kalie Olson hands Ethan Badle his lunch: a BBQ pulled pork sandwich

“We make everything from scratch," Olson said. "We do from scratch deserts. All of our sauces are made homemade. We make fresh bread every day. Big Tom’s Diner smokes all of our meats and makes our beans and stuff like that.”

Kalie Olson describes their menu as the family style food that she grew up eating at home. Both her parents are cooks.

She said the goal is to keep the atmosphere in the café light.

“You learn a lot of interesting things working down here," Olson said. "There is a lot of stuff going on, but we try to stay uninvolved in politics and just enjoy everybody’s company and treat everybody the same.”

The Olsons have run the Capitol Cafe for eight years, now. Kalie said there was a learning curve in the beginning.

“But I feel like we’ve gotten acclimated and kind of have a groove here now," she added.

But now there’s a new learning curve—running the café without her father, Big Tom Olson. The 73-year-old died on January first after a long battle with health issues.

“It’s been difficult getting started back here without his presence," Olson said. "But, I feel like he is still here with us. It’s just been a hard time, but we are doing well.”

Big Tom would occasionally run the register up through last year, smiling underneath a bristly handlebar moustache.

Lee Strubinger
Basement directions for the Capitol Cafe

But Tom reputation extended far beyond the Capitol basement into the Pierre community.

Bill Van Camp is a lobbyist and resident of Pierre. He remembered when the family came to Pierre to run the Outpost Lodge decades ago.

“And really started offering different kinds of food in the community that we didn’t have as a small town," Van Camp said. He added that Big Tom’s Diner is something unique compared to commercial establishments.

“It’s more of a homemade product. It’s comforting to know some things are like you remember them. That’s what Tom always brought to the café and even what he brought to the Outpost. Just a heck of a guy.”

Rep. Tony Randolph, a Republican from Rapid City, stepped into the café to order his lunch.

“I’m actually ordering for myself and a friend,” Randolph said. “It’s a cheeseburger with bacon. These guys do such a phenomenal job. I really appreciate how they take care of us.”

Dozens of lawmakers, staffers, state employees, lobbyists, lawyers and members of the public are in the café enjoying their lunch. They grab a bite to eat between morning committee hearings and when lawmakers gavel back to session in the afternoon.

Over near the soda dispenser, Lobbyist Steve Siegel filled up a glass with ice and Diet Coke. After standing in a line that stretches out into the hallway, he finally sat down to the lunch special of the day— barbeque beef brisket sandwich.

“It looks like a pulled pork sandwich with a little extra barbeque sauce, green beans with mashed potatoes and gravy," Siegel said. "All looks tasty.”

Siegel had a long morning. He lobbies for the South Dakota Trial Lawyers Association and just got out of a nearly two-hour House judiciary meeting where the committee took up four bills.

“It’s hard to say how much I’m looking forward to eating this lunch," Siegel said. "I’m starving, today, so I’m looking forward to it.”

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Lee Strubinger
Representative Tony Randolph gets his bacon cheeseburger

Meanwhile, Rep. Randolph gets his bacon cheeseburgers to go. He’s off to a meeting.

“What Tom started here—he’s leaving a legacy,” Randolph said. “I’m definitely going to miss him. I’m sorry to the family for their loss.”

Randolph walks down the hallway, past another part of Tom Olson’s legacy at the Capitol Cafe. On the daily specials board is the phrase Big Tom would say to every customer on their way out.

'Have A Happy Day.'

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.