MANITOWOC, Wis. — It’s the home of many of the big red cranes you see on construction sites. And if you check the ice machine during your next hotel visit, you’ll likely see the name scrawled — along with a snowflake — on the front. It’s even the fictitious hometown of Julia Stiles’ character in the movie “The Prince and Me.” The town is Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
But the town of about 33,000 is also the home of Late’s, a small-town diner just a few hundred yards from Lake Michigan and still lined with a long, winding counter and spinning stools. And there, placed high on the south wall near the ceiling, the restaurant is trying something new to both attract customers and secure its future: It’s offering a huge discount if customers pay with silver change minted before 1965.
How big? How about a hamburger for 12 cents, or 10 of them for $1. Like fries? 10 cents. Chicken? 100 pieces for $4.55. And you better believe in a state where fish fries on Fridays are as common as Packers games on Sundays you can nab a Perch sandwich for 20 cents.
Ask anyone in town where the best burger is, and Late’s will likely top the list. The golden, butter toasted bun is a staple in the community, along with their deep-fried cheese curds. But despite the joint’s popularity, it’s not immune from the economy.
The town over the last decade has seen economic decline. The Mirro company plant — once a manufacturing leader of aluminum cookware in the town — has shuttered, and now sits like a dilapidated, sleeping brick giant surrounded by weeds and a chain-linked fence near the city’s downtown. One resident joked over the weekend that the area is hemorrhaging jobs. It was followed with a laugh — a nervous one.
So maybe it should come as no surprise that one of the town’s staples is reacting to the economic downturn with a clever play that works as both a marketing campaign and a brilliant business move.
“With the value of the dollar going down, we think the price of silver – the value of silver – is going up,” Todd Tikalsky, the restaurant’s manager who’s been there for 27 years, told TheBlaze during an interview at the restaurant. Tikalsky, with his tennis shoes and a classic, white cooking apron, understands business: He has an accounting degree and moonlights as a tax preparer during the spring.
As an accountant, he and the restaurant’s owner, Karl Birkenstock, understand that silver change minted before 1965 is worth more than just its face value. That’s because the coins at that time were actually made with silver. The website Coinflation.com shows the current value of some such coins:
And both the manager and the owner seem to understand the economic landscape — and the government’s “quantitative easing” polices, or money-printing.
“With the government printing money and all it’s – the more and more things printed out, the less that they’re worth,” Tikalsky said in a matter-of-fact, calming voice. “A Hank Aaron rookie baseball card: If there was only one or two of them, they’d be worth millions; if there are thousands of them, well, they’re not worth as much. And that’s basically what the government is doing, you know, printing out money and the values are going down.”
The sign went up about three months ago. So far, Tikalsky says they’ve made a “couple dozen” sales with the special.
“You know, it’s the older clientele that come in here,” he explained. “They think that’s pretty neat, you know, older coins.” He added later, “We get a lot of older clientele here in the morning who drink coffee for a couple hours at a time and that gave them something to talk about for a week or two.”
Still, there’s one client who keeps taking advantage of it. And that’s okay with Tikalsky.
“There is one customer who comes in repeatedly and will continue to get it,” the manager smiles. “He thinks it’s funny, too. He’ll go ‘I have a whole bunch of silver coins at home. I’m gonna keep coming in.’ So, that’s fine.”
And while Tikalsky admits it started in part as a joke and a gimmick, he says there are no plans to take it down.
“If people keep coming in and are talking about it, it’ll stay up there,” he says.
And as long as the economy continues on its trend, he’ll have more than one reason to.