Corning, Iowa (pop. 1,635) is our featured rural community this week! The thriving scene in Corning is the result of a forward-thinking community that is full of vision for their small town. We'll be sharing stories throughout the week from local leaders and business owners who are making an impact here. Today's guest blog post is from Joel Mahr and Jill Fulton, owners of Primrose — a restaurant featuring farm fresh produce and local meats that has quickly become a destination, pulling people from miles — and states — around.
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"Don't fall in love with it too quickly, we don't know how much this costs," I told Jill when we first laid eyes on what would become Primrose Restaurant almost three years ago. I'm Joel Mahr, and my wife, Jill Fulton, and I are co-owners of Primrose Restaurant in Corning, Iowa.
We met almost 15 years ago. I was working at a dairy warehouse loading semi-trucks of milk and ice cream. Jill was working at a software company and part-time at a retail clothing store. I was the city kid still trying to find a job I truly liked (let’s be honest, I was lost in the job world). Jill had been raised on a farm 20 minutes away from where Primrose resides, and where her parents still live. Once Jill graduated college, she moved to the "big" city to find her dream job. She's goal-oriented, hard working, stubborn, and dedicated. She can do anything if she puts her mind to it. We traveled, fell in love, ate good food, and enjoyed each other’s company.
At 26, I acted as a teenager and sliced my ring finger to where I needed surgery. The doctor who performed surgery on my finger and I talked a lot about food. He's the one who told me about a chef in Elkhorn, Nebraska that I should go talk to about working in the kitchen. After my hand healed and my career in the dairy warehouse came to a close, I headed to Elkhorn to talk to the chef. This would be the start of my culinary career. I started working in the kitchen and taking classes at Metro Community college in Omaha, Nebraska. As my career progressed, I was able to work in many different types of restaurants in Omaha. The kitchens ranged from country clubs to fine dining. For the last five years we spent in Omaha, I was hired on as the head chef of a new restaurant in an up-and-coming neighborhood in Omaha. The restaurant hit the ground running and we had a three-month wait list. I received many acknowledgments along the way and the biggest highlight was being invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City in September of 2016.
As our careers took off, we worked separate work schedules, long days and nights. Jill would go to work in the morning and I would go in the afternoon. We were passing each other in the hallway of our house. Jill always supported my decisions when it came to finding myself as a young cook, to a sous chef, then to an executive chef and vice versa, with me and Jill's career.
As my career as Head Chef started, Jill approached her parents to see if they would consider raising garden produce for the new restaurant, as it featured a farm-to-table concept. They were hesitant, but agreed. As the years went by, the garden grew to over an acre and we started to sell to other restaurants in the Omaha area, as well as attending farmer's markets in Corning and Villisca.
In my fourth year of being a head chef, my desire to own my own restaurant and be my own boss was becoming more intriguing. I wanted to create my own food menus and not what the owners wanted me to do. Jill was supporting me in my dream of having my own restaurant. We still wanted to do a farm-to-table type of restaurant and try to keep the food as local as possible — the freshest around. We also knew that we couldn't do it in Omaha. You needed investors in Omaha, the market was getting too fierce, and we wanted to do it on our own.
Jill's brother frequently mentioned that Corning needed another restaurant. He had been talking about this for several years. It just happened that one day Jill was looking at the local Free Press newspaper and noticed that there was a ‘for sale’ ad in it for a restaurant in Corning. We called the realtor and next thing we knew we were looking at the business that very afternoon. After viewing, we knew it wasn't the right one. As we went to leave, we were asked to look at another building that was sitting empty on the main street of Corning. We walked in and both of us looked at the ceiling and we just knew. It had the original ceiling tile and character from when it was built. Even though it had been a clothing store for many years, we could see a restaurant in this building. As a bonus, the building had a great basement and an upstairs. The building was located in the downtown (Main Street), which is where we wanted to be.
After coming to the farmer’s markets in the summers, we knew Corning had a great main street vibe. For being such a small town, their main street was always busy and every building was occupied. Plus, talking to Main Street members and residents, we knew the Corning community supported and promoted each other. You could just feel the support. As a result, we were able to contact the owner of the building to ask if he would be willing to sell. We nervously awaited to hear the news and, if so, how much he would ask for it. To our surprise, he gave us a figure that we could afford and we started our new path as small business owners. We had to learn about all the ins and outs of being self-employed, business plans, equity, loan applications, etc. We purchased the building in 2016 and started construction in late 2017.
As we went through the long process, I was anxious to cook and show everyone the delicious food I could make. I was eager and sometimes frustrated throughout the process. But with the support of family and friends, we were able to see the finished product in May 2018. We couldn't have asked for anything more. Most of our produce is raised 20 minutes away from the restaurant. In fact, we work in the garden and are able to bring in the produce ourselves. We also have local farmers who are able to supply us with beef, pig, lamb, and chicken. An added bonus is getting fresh fruit throughout the summer and being able to purchase local honey.
Some people ask us how we came up with the name "Primrose." I just happened to come across the Jim Harrison poem, "I Believe."
We can say that Primrose did appear on our short list, but after reading the poem, it was meant to be.
So from the farm girl returning home and the city boy escaping from the city; to creating farm-to-table-inspired food with an ever-changing menu; local beers, craft cocktails, and great wine; it's "City Dining in a Small Town." We truly believe we didn't choose Corning, it picked us. We feel very lucky to call Corning, Iowa our place to live and work.
Find out more about the rural revival happening in Corning, Iowa here: