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Annawan waitress faced big leap in becoming owner
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti/pcolletti@qconline.com
Jan Wancket Nelson checks a turkey as she works to prepare food in the kitchen of the Purple Onion restaurant in Annawan on Thursday, November 21, 2013. Ms. Wancket Nelson bought the establishment from the previous owners and has run the business for more than twenty years.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti/pcolletti@qconline.com
Jan Wancket Nelson owns the Purple Onion restaurant in Annawan. Ms. Wancket Nelson bought the establishment from the previous owners and has run the business for more than twenty years.


ANNAWAN — The petite brunette greets a customer in her Annawan restaurant, telling her she loves the color of her dress.

And why wouldn't she appreciate it? The dress is purple, and this is the Purple Onion restaurant, filled with the aromas of homemade specials and pies.

Janet Nielsen was born and raised in Annawan. She walked bean fields on her parents' farm, did some babysitting and, at 14, detasseled for a hybrid corn company. At 16, she went to work at the former Farmer's Table on Interstate 80, busing tables and waitressing.

She became a supervisor, but then the restaurant closed.

A friend told her that Bob and Ilse Davis, who owned the Purple Onion, were looking for help and wanted her to come by. The Purple Onion was less than a mile from the restaurant by the interstate, but it was a different world.

The food was homemade and customers tended to be local. Instead of waiting on four or five tables, one waitress would have a dozen tables, and workers would come in all at once wanting coffee.

Mrs. Davis taught her to cook. Ms. Nielsen remembers being "scared to death" of the woman who had a reputation for being strict.

"Once I worked with her, she became a good friend," she said. She still talks to Mr. and Mrs. Davis regularly.

When she was 23 or 24, the owners began putting her in charge of the restaurant for 18 days straight when they went on vacation. After nine years, they sold the business to an out-of-town couple.

The new owners were losing business. It was so slow, Mrs. Nielsen said one day the woman offered her a magazine to read during what should have been a busy time.

"I thought, 'Really. You're kidding me,'" she said.

Concerned they were going to shut down, she quit and took a job at the Cellar in Geneseo and a Maid-Rite in Annawan.

After the Davises bought the restaurant back, Ms. Nielsen called and pleaded with them to take her back at the restaurant, which they did. "It was like home to me. I'd been here all these years."

She said she never planned to buy the restaurant, but the Davises tried to convince her, and she began giving it serious thought.

It was 1993, and she was a single mother of two young children, living with her mother. She thought she would have to get a second job or take the leap and buy the restaurant.

She said people were supportive when they heard she was debating it. "I can't say enough about my mom. Without her, I never could have done it. She watched the kids and gave me a lot of support."

Ms. Nielsen said she works for her four days per week at the Purple Onion. "We're very close. We've been through a lot together over the years."

Her grandparents loaned her the money for the down payment on the restaurant, State Bank of Annawan provided a loan, and when she was still short, the bank president gave her a personal loan.

She repaid her grandparents within two years and had the bank loans -- due in 15 years -- paid off in 13. She said she didn't really have credit, but the restaurant's three main suppliers knew her and took her on.

Ms. Nielsen said the business was ideal for raising her children. They lived in an adjoining apartment for seven years. With a door open, she could keep an eye on them and even get a load of laundry done during slower hours.

She feels her children witnessed a good work ethic, and she is pleased that others have said her kids are hard workers. They still tease her son, Tyler, about wandering into the restaurant in footie pajamas as a small child and having a doughnut with customers as they drank coffee.

Now 52, Ms. Nielsen said she can't foresee the day she'll give up working. "I keep telling everybody I'll be working forever."

She met her husband, Dave Nielsen, through the restaurant. They married in 1996 and have a daughter, Zoey, 10. "We met here and got engaged in the back room," she said. "We lived here, so like I said, this place is home."

Eventually, the couple built a house three blocks away.

She said she doesn't think there is anything she'd change about her career. "I really don't think so because it worked and the restaurant has really been good for me and my family as far as raising my kids."

You meet a lot of nice people, she said. "It's hard work, but even like my regular customers that come in every morning or every afternoon, they're like family. If they don't come in, you wonder what happened. I have been known to call them."

She said her customers came to her wedding and her children's graduations. "It's like family. Even the help, too, they're like family."

Since the economic downturn, people haven't been eating out as often.

Mrs. Nielsen said 2012 was her toughest year, and 2013 wasn't much better.

"They are hard years, but you just learn to cut back. I've cut back a lot on help. I cook and prep, and I don't have to have a dishwasher. We're hanging tough, and I don't plan on closing anytime soon."

"Janet runs a good restaurant," longtime customer Duane Rakestraw Sr. said. "The food is good, always good. Never any different. I've been going to Janet for years, and I don't have any intention to change."







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