S&J Café in Oconomowoc is duly named for its owner-operators: husband-wife team Scott and Jen Ames. The culinary-minded couple opened the café in September 2015, after years of working in the restaurant industry.
The century-old building that houses their venture has been a restaurant since World War II. “I think we’ve tracked it back to the late ‘40s,” says Jen. Names like Red & Bunny’s Diner and Blondie’s Lunch Box will be well known to longtime Oconomowoc residents.
But the Ames duo have put their own stamp on a familiar place: “We’re a Norwegian-Cajun fusion,” says Scott. “And there’s not many of those around,” adds Jen, laughing.
North & south
The couple met at UW-LaCrosse and then headed south so Scott could attend the Culinary Arts Institute of Louisiana in Baton Rouge.
They both found work with corporate chains; he as an executive chef for J. Alexander’s, and she as a general manager and area director for Ruby Tuesday’s.
A decade ago, they settled in Lake Country to be closer to their families and to start their own.
The decision to open their own place came naturally. “I wanted to figure out a way to get some equity out of all my hard work,” says Scott. “A lot of things aligned that made it feel like we were headed down the right path,” he recalls.
Jen explains, “When we found this building, it had a reputation for being a great breakfast place, so we really steered it into breakfast and lunch, which was also perfect for our family.”
Scott opens the café and starts cooking, while Jen sees the couple’s kids off to school. She joins him later, and they’re both home when the kids hop off the school bus. As a chef used to working 12-hour days, Scott notes, “It’s improved our quality of life.”
Breakfast & lunch
The intimate café has a grill and diner stools, plus a handful of tables. The menu is a mix of Norwegian specialties and Southern staples. “We’ve taken things we’ve enjoyed and turned them into our own,” says Jen.
One of their signature dishes is the “Stovey” Norwegian Breakfast Wrap: a Denver omelet wrapped in lefse.
Another Scandinavian dish, Rokelaks, features smoked salmon, cream cheese, red onion, and capers on a bagel. Other breakfast items include biscuits and gravy, French toast, and eggs made to order.
The lunch menu features a breaded chicken sandwich, pastrami on rye, eleven-layer salad, and more. Daily specials include homemade soups, quiche, and pie baked from scratch by a pastry chef. As much of 90 percent of what they serve is breakfast, though. “Even at lunchtime, people are coming in for omelets,” says Jen.
Regulars & rewards
The café is open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Sunday and sees many repeat customers, from construction workers to business commuters. “Regulars are the cornerstone of the business,” adds Jen.
Getting to know members of the community—by name, drink, and order—is a perk Scott particularly enjoys. “It’s that small-town feel you don’t often find,” he says.
Jen is extremely proud of what they’ve created, and they both love hearing from people that they’ll be back. “Being your own boss has been very rewarding; it helps when you’re working really hard to see the benefits and reap the rewards,” says Scott.