Gabby Lou’s Kitchen dishing out the vittles in Harmony

Matt Brown is pictured in Gabby Lou’s Kitchen, a café in downtown Harmony, Minn., that recently opened for business. (Driftless Multimedia photos by Charlie Warner)

By By Charlie Warner

For decades, the Harmony House Restaurant was a very popular locale for great breakfasts and noon specials. The down-home café, located on the west side of Main Street Harmony, was where folks throughout the area congregated for great food and lively conversation.

Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic and staffing issues spelled the demise of the Harmony House several years ago.

Enter Heidi and Matt Brown.

The Browns opened up Estelle’s Eatery and Bar in Harmony in 2015. This business venture proved to be quite successful. Area residents, as well as the throngs of tourists passing through the Driftless Area, helped make Estelle’s one of the top dinning destinations in southeast Minnesota.

“We were very pleased with the success of Estelle’s and when the Harmony House came up for auction, we decided to buy it as an investment,” Matt explained. “It was January 2021, at the height of COVID, and no one was buying restaurants. It was just down the street from our business. We could use the building for extra storage and the kitchen for our catering business.”

It didn’t take long before Matt and Heidi started brainstorming about what to do with their new acquisition. Heidi was contemplating a career change. She had worked for eight years as a special education instructor at Fillmore Central Schools. Heidi, the daughter of Jim and Polly Harstad, grew up in Harmony and recalled what a valuable asset the Harmony House was for the community. 

The Browns decided to open a second eating venue; this one with a similar flavor of the old main street café. They spent nearly two years remodeling the building. The eight-foot suspended ceiling was removed, exposing a 14-foot high tin ceiling that was in remarkably good shape.

“The tin ceiling was pretty yellow, from years of cigarette smoke,” Matt said, glancing upward. “It took a number of coats of paint to cover it, but it really did turn out nice.” The Browns really didn’t have a timeline, so they took their time and made improvements where needed. They did keep some of the original fixtures, including the booths and counter area, but opened up the kitchen, installed plank flooring and gave the entire building a fresh coat of paint. 

The Harmony House had been known for its gigantic cinnamon rolls. Matt said that tradition is being carried on, thanks to pastry chef Izzy Musel, who is also stocking the pastry case with muffins and cookies.

Gabby Lou’s serves various breakfast specials from 7-10:30 a.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 8-10:30 a.m. on Saturdays, and noon specials from 10:30 a.m. until 1:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. 

With Gabby Lou’s open for business mornings and over the noon hour and Estelle’s open for afternoon and evening dining, the Browns will be offering dining alternatives throughout the day.

The new café in Harmony opened its doors last month, and according to Matt, the response has been overwhelming. 

“People are happy to have their café open once again,” Matt said. “We have a great staff at Estelle’s and many of those employees are being cross-trained so they can work in both of our businesses. Once you are able to hire good people and treat them right, you get a good team, which makes a big difference.”

Incidentally, Estelle’s is named after the Brown’s eldest daughter, Stella and Gabby Lou’s after their second daughter Gabriella Lou, who was only two years old when she died of leukemia. 

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