Anchoring past memories to Sparta Rudy’s; New owners plan to keep drive-in tradition alive
Every year the Sparta community patiently (or not so patiently) awaits the seasonal re-opening of Rudy’s Drive-In. This year, the beloved restaurant will open under new ownership as long-time employee Shelley Gates and her partner Terrelle Wilson take the helm.
An Onalaska native, Gates started working for Rudy’s in La Crosse when she was 16 years old. “It was one of the first jobs I ever applied for and 25-years-later I ended up still working at Rudy’s,” she said.
Gates went to college at University of Wisconsin - La Crosse to become a teacher and continued to work at Rudy’s during the summers. When she became an assistant principal at Minnesota Virtual Academy, she continued to help out at Rudy’s here and there as best she could.
She worked with Gary Rudy, who owns the restaurant in La Crosse and the Sparta location’s previous owner Justin Smith for a long time; in fact, Gates and Smith started at the location in La Crosse the same year.
When they were looking to sell the Sparta location, Smith and Gates sat down to have a conversation about her and Wilson taking over. Although Gates had some hesitation at first, eventually her and Wilson knew buying the business was the right thing for them.
“Even when I was a little girl going to Rudy’s it was always a big deal, so I have a loyalty to Rudy’s and a connection to it and it's something that’s been really close to me,” Gates said. “Even after I became a teacher, I still wanted to come back and be a part of it.”
The Sparta location originally opened as an A&W and later became Choppers. Smith reopened the location as Rudy’s in 2009.
Before any of the employees knew Gates and Wilson would be taking over ownership, Gates spent some time working at the Sparta location last summer and Wilson, who works as an Equity & Inclusion Specialist at Wilson Technical College in La Crosse, spent some time working at the location in La Crosse.
“We just wanted to see how operations went and what was different, what was the same and learned a few of the ins and outs of it,” Gates said. “Finally, in February of this year we made everything final. Now, I get to continue with Rudy’s in a different community.”
As Gates and Wilson get to know the community and fellow business owners, they have been pleasantly surprised at the warm welcome. “Everybody has just been wonderful to work with and we’re really excited to be a part of this community,” Gates said.
Wilson added they want to invest in and impact the community in a positive way, whether that means hosting family fun nights or delivering lunches to local senior centers.
“There are McDonald’s everywhere, but Rudy’s is a place that for whatever reason, there’s this intersection of memorable moments and that’s part of what we want to try to create more of is those opportunities for people to have something that anchors them to this community,” Wilson said, adding that he and Gates want to be able to pass those lasting memories on to their children as well.
The couple lives in La Crescent with their seven kids aged 6 to 13, who will play a large role in the future of Rudy’s in Sparta. Wilson said their kids are excited to be a part of the family’s new business adventure.
“Having the Sparta community as the forefront and our family is kind of like leaving a legacy. We’re doing all this hard work for them, so they have an opportunity to continue to be impactful to the community,” he said. “As terrifying as it feels most days to be taking this risk, there’s a bunch of good things that come with it too.”
Although they are not planning to make any major changes to the day to day operations, they will be making a few cosmetic upgrades and are currently in the process of installing a new POS system that will now allow the business to accept credit cards and customers will also be able to order online.
“That’s a big change for Rudy’s,” Gates said. “That will be the biggest change. We want to keep everything else very traditional. We don’t want to change too much because that’s the tradition of Rudy’s.”
“It’s a challenge to upkeep tradition, but the point of it is to maintain something that again, anchors people back to that memory,” Wilson added. “We’re not changing anything. We’re enhancing what people love about it.”
They will continue to work in tandem with the La Crosse location and all of the same tried and true menu items will still be available to customers. Gates and Wilson have no plans to make any changes where the menu is concerned.
“We’re the first non-relative to own a Rudy’s and it was a big discussion before we signed anything that we really want to keep that level of trust with Gary and Justin,” Gates said. “We want to maintain that level of customer service and all of the things that bring people back season after season.”
Rudy’s in Sparta, located at 514 Water Street, is scheduled to reopen Saturday, May 1.