Arthur Valentine started what would become known as the Valentine Lunch System in the late 30’s and became an icon in restaurant history. Headquartered in Wichita, Kansas from the late 1930s to 70’s, Valentine Industries became a success in manufacturing low-cost start up diners. By 1951 the famed bandleader Lawrence Welk, already in the real estate business in California expanded his business endeavor into a Valentine diner in the Midwest and the archetype was designed in black & white to look like an accordion (Welk’s instrument) with the signature name, “A Lawrence Welk Diner.” Welk’s investment strategy was to build ten of the diners and locate them throughout Iowa, but he never pursued the project as he could not juggle the band business and the restaurants at the same time. The only known Lawrence Welk Diner manufactured was located on 1st Street in Mason City, Iowa and by the time the run-down restaurant met its demise in the 80’s the grand arched neon sign displaying it as a “A Lawrence Welk Diner” was long gone.
However, the Welk diner is no longer there but, the Suzie Q Diner is still open for business in Mason City and is a 10-stool original Valentine Diner, a perfect example of the Lawrence Welk diner. Renus Lytle, who purchased and operated Suzie Q diner in 1948 to 1961 sold it eventually to Charlotte “Charlie” Klatt, who ran the diner from 1963 until 1985. The diner was acquired by four owners until 1997 when its current owner Troy Levenhagen purchased it. There are three other Valentine Diners in operation across Iowa, the Dinky Diner at Decatur City, the Clamshell Diner at Muscatine and the Grand Diner at Spencer. Nevertheless, none is as unique as the Suzie Q Diner in resemblance to the Welk diner.
Former owner Charlie Klatt was known for the best breakfast in Mason City at one time hand cut curly-cue french fries she called, “Suzie Q’s.” Levenhagen, a magician by trade, has operated the Suzie Q over a decade and has retained the tradition of a working-man’s breakfast. In addition, the diner provides a menu of handmade burger creations and an extraordinary tenderloin sandwich. Troy integrated a tenderloin sandwich into the business from another local restaurant, the Spic n’ Span. The commemorated restaurant operated in a back alley thirty years ago and had a batter recipe that set their sandwich apart from others. Levenhagen acquired the authentic recipe and sizzles the loins in the homemade batter spiced with pepper, heaped with vegetables and famous for its tangy, golden crust taste. It’s been a local favorite for 60 years and worth the detour during an Iowa road trip for lunch. In addition, Lawrence Welk considered serving something called a “Squeezeburger” on his dinner menu, but it never happened and I doubt it could have rivaled the tenderloin at the Spic n’ Span at the time.
Patrons of Suzie Q’s have witnessed half a century of events over the years as they sipped coffee while indulging in the morning paper. Although the menus have changed through the years, the diner has little. Suzie Q diner is a comparable representation to the Welk diner though its red Formica counter top has faded with age from millions of elbows sliding across it and the once red stools show decades of wear and tear. Troy Levenhagen truly is a magician by trade, he refurbished a historic diner and revived a renowned sandwich the Spic n’ Span Tenderloin. Not a bad trick for a weekend magician.