Celine Carlson has been in the hospitality business for more than 40 years, and she’s seen a lot of food trends come and go. The one thing that never seems to change, though, is the desire for a cozy neighborhood spot where the coffee is strong, the portions are generous and the pie case is full of scratch-made favorites.
At age 12, Carlson got her first job, working at Dairy Queen alongside her mother and three siblings. “It seems crazy now, but my mother and all of us kids worked together there. We would get pulled out of school early if a dishwasher didn’t show up,” she says, noting the job gave her skills and a dedication to hard work that have served her well in her career as a restaurateur. “Our mother taught us so much about work ethic, and how to treat employees and serve customers,” she says of those early experiences.
The owner of that Dairy Queen helped Carlson’s mother, Barbara Hunn-Meisen, open the first Keys Café on Raymond Avenue in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood, and that location is still going strong after 44 years.
“I’ve always worked in my family’s business, and with my mother’s help I owned my first location when I was 21,” says Carlson, who decided to branch out with her business partner, Brian Carlson, to open the White Bear Lake location. Though not technically a chain, all nine Keys locations are owned and operated by Carlson or one of her three siblings, allowing the family to ensure diners in each community they serve experience the same home-style, made-from-scratch cooking, friendly service and welcoming vibe that define the original restaurant.
“It’s a local hometown feeling,” says Carlson. But don’t let the casual diner atmosphere fool you: The food is some of the best around, and Keys is usually packed at breakfast, with regulars vying for one of the famous caramel pecan or cinnamon sweet rolls. “We’re awarded yearly for our breakfast,” Carlson says. And it’s not hard to see why. The breakfast menu features scratch-recipe buttermilk pancakes; a corned beef hash made with tender, roasted corn beef brisket; and four variations on eggs Benedict. The Keys Original Omelet, a signature two-egg omelet—created by Carlson’s mother over 30 years ago—includes a seemingly endless number of ingredients, from Italian sausage, ham and bacon to mushrooms, onions, green peppers, cheese and more.
Carlson also provides catering services for Kellerman’s Event Center. “We do lots of wedding cakes and a lot of our house chocolate cake,” she says. In addition, the café’s large meeting room can be reserved for groups, and many of the bakery’s cookies, cakes and pies can be preordered in large quantities for special events.
The restaurant even offers a special Thanksgiving dinner to-go option, which can be ordered and picked up the day before the holiday (Keys is closed Thanksgiving Day, although the Woodbury and Roseville locations are open for business and pick-up). The meal includes enough hearty food to serve at least six people (and enough homemade flavor they might not even notice you didn’t spend all day in the kitchen).
“White Bear has been a blessing to us,” says Carlson, and it’s clear many White Bear residents feel the same about Keys.