Village Square – Around the Corner – Pilot Independent
For over four decades, the Village Square has been a mainstay of Walker’s dining scene, popular with locals and seasonal visitors alike since 1979.
But the path wasn’t always smooth or straight, as owners Gary and Theresa Bilben can attest.
Back in the early-to-mid 20th century, Village Square’s brick building housed a Texaco gas station, complete with pumps outside and a garage for oil changes and tire changes inside.
The Ellis family owned the property but in the late 1970s, turned it into a restaurant. Mitch Ellis, his dad Newell and mom Rosemary, and Mike Nelson started the pizza restaurant and ice cream shop.
In 1985, Mitch married Theresa Hopen and in 1989, they bought the restaurant. Tragically, Mitch passed away, all-too-young, in 1990.
Somehow, life manages to go on. By 1991, Theresa was now married to Gary Bilben. The Bilbens have owned and operated Village Square ever since, except for two notable gaps.
“In 1998 we quit the business … and Guiliana’s rented the space and tried to offer our pizza recipe,” Theresa recalls.
But somehow … it wasn’t quite the same.
By 2001, the Bilbens and their kids were back. Working at the restaurant/coffee/espresso/ice cream shop. Offering full service year-round. Opening every day except for three holidays per year. Employing up to 48 people during summer months.
Whew! Until …
In 2016 the Bilbens sold the business and leased the space to yet another couple.
“We encouraged them to make some new changes that would represent their personality, while continuing to offer the ideas that were mainstays and loved by so many,” says Theresa.
But again, somehow, it didn’t click.
By 2019, Gary and Theresa were back again, in the kitchen and behind the counter, this time with changes to the business model, while still offering popular menu items that are a “win” for The Village.
“The fast casual concept was what we changed from full service,” she explains. “Counter service works for this time in our world. It eliminates the need for a large staff, there’s less wait time for service, and guests can get back to their camper, cabin or the lake faster.”
When revamping their business concept, the Bilbens sat down and listed what they disliked most about their previous experiences.
“We eliminated the deep fat fryers, fountain pop, full service, and started closing on Sundays. We are loving the new concept, and enjoy being back!”
The current menu is mostly the same as it was except for fryer items. Village Square specializes in fresh ingredients. They make the dough and sauce in-house, purchase high end cheese and use fresh ingredients. They offer house-made seasonal soup and sandwiches that are loved by all.
The four cheese grilled cheese with tomato basil, the pita Charlie, jalapeno popper grilled cheese, and the new Spam Bhan mi are all top sellers.
When COVID hit, it was tough because of the uncertainties.
Village has always been a very clean space, but with COVID, things really got crazy with surface cleaning every 20 minutes and more. They only offered carry out from the ice cream shop side, offered contact-free delivery and curbside pick-up. Things were busy, to put it mildly.
Gradually the Bilbens brought back staff, which was a bit scary but very necessary. This allowed them to be open more days, and the restaurant thrived.
In fact, the past summer was better than the year before, although that probably isn’t a fair comparison because the Bilbens had just gotten back in the game last summer.
“We also were closed two days a week this summer; our family needed to rest!”
The patio was a plus for outdoor dining, with three more tables added.
Normally, Village Square does more take-out than dine-in business, and has been doing even more take-out now. They also will deliver if they get the request early enough.
But whenever they get a call from guests at Portage Brewery, they always deliver menu items, around the corner and right up the block.
Village’s ice cream shop is open year-round with a cozy fireplace for meetings and coffee time — as well as special cheesecake made by Chef Amit, who also makes Stout and Chocolate Cake.
While the ice cream selection is less during the winter, Theresa says that on sunny days the shop sells an amazing amount of ice cream.
What makes Village Square’s menu unique? The list is long, but definitely starts with the original recipes for pizza sauce and pizza dough, created back in 1979. And while Gary and Theresa love to cook and try out new recipes, “We need items on the menu that are fast to prepare!”
Theresa rattles off some best sellers: kitchen sink pizza, chicken pesto, four cheese grilled cheese with tomato basil soup, house-made, award-winning turkey burger, Greek salads — and the list goes on, all at affordable prices.
The Village Square will be open through the fall and winter, unless COVID decides otherwise; at which point, it will switch to carry-out only.
Plans are to be open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. for the restaurant, and 8 or 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. for the coffee and ice cream shop. At some point, they may add shorter hours on Sundays for take-out only.
Village Square Pizza and Ice Cream is located at 411 Minnesota Avenue in downtown Walker. To place an order, call 547-1456.