Burgers: They never go out of style, and honestly, what can’t you do with a burger? It’s possible today to get anything from a Reuben burger to a black ’n’ bleu burger to burgers made out of black beans or with cheese curds or fried eggs or chipotle mayo or Brie and truffle oil or peanut butter or sriracha. Who could possibly want a basic burger with all these choices available?
Apparently a whole lot of people. Eden Prairie’s Lions Tap remains faithful to the most basic renditions of burgers and has built a decades-long success with them. With nary a drop of truffle oil or a squirt of sriracha to be seen, Lions Tap still packs in people who want a burger and crinkle fries and not much else. How did that happen?
The answer is: through a process of evolution. Lions Tap didn’t just spring up fully formed and ready to grill. Oddly, it started with vegetables and involved a rotating door of owners before it settled into its role as a purveyor of grilled patties. In the 1930s, second-generation family farmers Severin and Ernest Peterson decided it would help their farm if they built a farm stand, called Peterson Brothers Market, to sell their products to passersby. They also thought that perhaps offering beer at the vegetable stand might attract more customers (we can only assume Severin and Ernest would applaud the current craft beer scene in Minnesota). The beer itself proved so popular that a couple of changes-of-ownership later, the vegetable stand was closed so more attention could be paid to the bar business.
For many years, the focus was on beer (and for a while, bootlegged whiskey). When food was introduced, it was what eventually became Deli Express. But in 1958, Irene and Sears Lyons bought the bar, renamed it Lyons Tap, and decided to try serving burgers. The first burgers were made in a frying pan on a small stove, four at a time. The burgers were such a hit that the Lyons had to buy a grill that would allow them to produce eight burgers at a time.
When the Lyons decided to sell, the new owners added crinkle-cut fries, because — well — burgers and fries. They didn’t hang on to the bar and grill for long. In 1977, three years after adding fries, they sold to Bert and Bonnie Notermann, who changed the bar’s name to Lions Tap. The Notermanns upped the burger game a bit by adding their own secret seasoning (now available for sale), which tastes of garlic and onion powder, among other flavors. And they’ve trusted in the hand-patted burgers to keep driving customers to their door.
Today, Lions Tap is owned by the Notermann’s son, Matt, whose nieces and nephews are already making regular appearances in the kitchen. His contribution to the enterprise was to change the beer offering to a Lions-Tap-branded set of beers that are produced by Janesville, Wis.-based Gray Brewing Co. But otherwise, the kitchen staff is still hand-patting burgers and offering them up in a very few varieties: plain (single $4, double $7.30), cheese (single $4.65, double $8.50), bacon-cheese (single $5.45, double $10), California (single $5.30, double $9.70), California cheese (single $5.95, double $10.85), and the most recent menu addition (circa early 2000s), mushroom and Swiss (single $5.45, double $10). Burgers are cooked to order, and you can get them as rare or as well-done as you like, although, as Matt Notermann admits, the cooks in the kitchen may have something to say about anyone who wants a burger very well done. Oh — and if you really, really don’t want a burger, you can request a grilled cheese or BLT off-menu. Know that your bread will be the same bun as the burgers get.
With burgers the star of his menu, why hasn’t Notermann jumped on any bandwagons in terms of menu modernization? “We don’t like fancy, frilly stuff,” he said. “And people appreciate that about us. They know nothing’s changed, and they’ll get their favorite every time they come here. Why mess with it? It works.”
It certainly isn’t the location that drives business. Lions Tap is situated in a lonely roadside spot along what was once Highway 169, then became Highway 212, and is now simply Flying Cloud Drive. There are no other attractions to draw customers (unless you count the Fredrick-Miller Spring just down the street). The restaurant has had to contend first with the flooding of major roads nearby (Highway 101 crosses the Minnesota River to Shakopee and regularly flooded in the spring), and more recently with the solution to the flooding — reconstruction of the bridge, which closed down traffic in the area for months. There’s more reconstruction planned for the road adjacent to Lions Tap, but Notermann’s not worried. “None of that affected us at all,” he said. “We survived. People kept coming. If one road was closed, they’d figure out another.”
That means a lot of meat goes in and out of the Lions Tap kitchen. Fresh beef is delivered daily, with the restaurant using between 2,500 and 3,500 pounds a week. Staff spends two hours each morning hand-forming the patties.
Why do people keep coming when the menu doesn’t change and is limited in scope? “We have one item. We have to do it well,” said Notermann. “And if we’re doing well, why mess with it? Chicken, fish, salad — that’s not us. That’s not what we do.” If he could add one new thing to the menu, it would be not an entree, but onion rings, something the current kitchen can’t handle. But the customers, many of whom are repeats and known by the staff, don’t care. “We get people in suits, families, teenagers, construction workers,” Notermann said. “Everyone’s happy here.”
Which leads to the question: Why only one Lions Tap in 60 years? If people are still swarming off the beaten path to its door, why not franchise or expand? “I get calls about that every week,” said Notermann. “I have looked at the possibility of expanding into other markets.” The reason he hasn’t? Obviously not location — if he can keep the restaurant successful in its current location, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t succeed elsewhere. “The biggest problem is staffing,” he said. “Our staff is part of the big picture here. Half of the staff has been here at least 10 years. Some have been here 20 years or more. A few weeks ago, we had a party for an employee who’s been here 35 years, which is the longest. Our customers form relationships with our staff. They come, they bring their kids, the kids grow up and keep coming, and later they bring their kids, and they know the staff.” Not being able to guarantee that kind of staffing elsewhere gives Notermann pause.
In the meantime, Lions Tap just keeps those burgers and fries flying out the door. It doesn’t hurt that the company is big in the community, providing extensive support for local schools and youth sports teams. Everyone’s welcome — even those who want a very well-done burger.
Burgers and beer in Eden Prairie
16180 Flying Cloud Dr
Eden Prairie, MN 55347
Daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Sort of / No
ENTREE RANGE: $10-$17.50
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Free lot