Minnesota Nice founder Jeanette Proulx remembered for her cooking and her warmth

·4 min read

Sep. 22—BEMIDJI — Jeanette Proulx was approaching retirement age when she decided to open her restaurant, Minnesota Nice Café, in downtown Bemidji.

She had a little trouble getting financing, so she did what came naturally. She baked some cinnamon and caramel rolls, took them to a banker and got the loan she needed.

Minnesota Nice has become a popular downtown eatery, and its many loyal patrons were saddened to hear that Proulx died last week at the age of 78. A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 26, at Mt. Zion Church.

"When most people (her age) are retiring, she was starting her dream," said Jeanette's daughter-in-law, Amanda Proulx, who now owns the restaurant with her husband, Jacob. "She was always a restaurateur in her heart. She's kind of had that dream since she was like 5, to own her own restaurant."

Jeanette worked at other restaurants in town and managed Burger King in Bemidji before starting her own business in 2006 at the age of 62. Her husband, Roger, used his carpentry and mechanical skills to prepare the original location at 414 Beltrami Ave. NW and the current site at 315 Irvine Ave. NW, where Minnesota Nice moved in 2013.

Amanda said Roger knew it was his wife's dream to open her own place.

"He finally was like, 'You know she's been talking about this for 30 years. We better just do it,'" said Amanda, who handles the office and marketing duties in addition to serving tables.

Jacob said customers have been offering condolences and sharing stories about his mother in the days since she died.

"People are mentioning just how much she meant to them and how much they enjoyed her presence at the restaurant," said Jacob, who now runs the kitchen and manages the cafe and staff. "She just believed in the vision and believed in the community, that people would rally around her. And people did. People really cared a lot about the cafe and for her."

Roger and Jeanette's daughter Danielle McDougall is also in the family business managing the catering side. The business has purchased property to the north of the cafe and plans to build a catering kitchen in 2023 after a house on the property is razed.

"Danielle will definitely carry on her mother's hospitality with love being the main ingredient in all her cooking," Amanda said.

Jeanette was the face of Minnesota Nice from its inception until 2020 when COVID-19 shut the cafe down temporarily. She was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment about four years ago and struggled with dementia until her death.

"It was a slow decline at first," Amanda said. "We wanted her to be here as much as she wanted. There's always something to do in a restaurant."

What Jeanette really liked to do was feed people. She proudly served what many might call "Grandma's food," including those cinnamon and caramel rolls and pancakes that famously made national news after a Los Angeles Times food columnist visited Minnesota Nice in 2011.

"She was not in this for money," Amanda said. "You wouldn't find her in the office going over reports. You'd find her in the kitchen cooking, and loving it. In the beginning, she was surrounded by a lot of people who are smart with business and could see the passion and the heart that she had for cooking and for serving people."

She added, "It started as a small, homey place. You kind of felt like it was an extension of Jeanette's living room. It feels like you're sitting at grandma's house for dinner, and grandma's cooking dinner, baking pies and you're sitting around chatting. Jeanette wanted to invite people in, to her warmth, to her love, to her house. I think people felt that."

In true Jeanette Proulx style, Monday's celebration of life will include a meal and time for fellowship. In lieu of flowers, the family is inviting donations made in Jeanette's name to the Northwoods Pregnancy Center or Evergreen Youth and Family Services, two organizations she supported.