Cows-N-Canoes Country Mercantile closer to opening doors

COWS-N-CANOES COUNTRY MERCANTILE is not open for business, but the structure does not look entirely abandoned with geraniums and furniture on the patio facing SD-34. Ricky and Vicki Johns hope to open later this year across from Prairie Village.

Vicki Johns admits that she will not be able to realize all of the dreams she once had for Cows-N-Canoes Country Mercantile, but she and her husband Ricky will do what they can.

"It's going to be a lot different than it was," she said of the restaurant located west of Madison across from Prairie Village on SD-34.

Johns had envisioned a wide country porch, but discovered zoning regulations prevented them from adding one. She had hoped to open the new business in phases, but again came up against zoning regulations.

When it opens, hopefully yet this year, Cows-N-Canoes Country Mercantile will be a restaurant and gift shop, modeled along the lines of the Cracker Barrell chain.

"We're hoping to have a lot of South Dakota-made items and have some artists from the area," Johns said.

The menu has yet to be determined.

She began to imagine the building's possibilities when she worked as a real estate agent. It was among the properties she had listed.

"I would have open houses and imagine what I would do with it," she recalled. For a time, it was under contract, but that fell through.

However, the possibilities Johns had imagined began to take root. She discussed these with her husband, who is a contractor.

"We kept driving by it every day and thinking about it," Johns said, noting that they live nearby.

Finally, they took the leap and purchased the property. For the past year, they have been working on it and refining their ideas. One of the most basic challenges was deciding on a name.

"It took us a year to come up with the name," she mentioned. She said she generated page after page of names, but nothing seemed to fit their vision of the business.

"We wanted it to be kind of old-fashioned," Johns explained. Too, they wanted it to fit the location -- nestled in farmland across from Lake Herman.

A final consideration was the ambience they were working to create and the merchandise they were hoping to carry. The decor varies from room to room with a nautical theme in some areas and a county theme in others.

"We were thinking, `How do we make these two things go together'?" Johns said.

They are hoping that in addition to carrying gift items, they will be able to carry a few items that campers might need at Prairie Village or Lake Herman State Park. The name needed to reflect that welcoming country store approach to business.

Johns indicated they have been doing the work themselves and their plan includes new windows, a patio, a new entrance on the west and a drive-thru on the front of the building. They are also considering an outside cooking area.

Painting the exterior of the building is also on their to-do list, but that may wait until spring.

"We're not sure how much we'll get done before winter," Johns said, noting that the cooler days of fall have already arrived.

In addition to a restaurant and gift shop, Cows-N-Canoes Country Mercantile will include an ice cream and chocolate shop. At present, the couple plan to have a seasonal business that will be closed during the winter months.

With the COVID pandemic, they have not been anxious to open the restaurant but had hoped to open other parts of the business. However, as Mandi Anderson, Lake County planning and zoning officer, posted on Facebook, the area is not zoned for a retail business.

They can only open a restaurant at that location -- or, according to Lake County ordinances, a strip club. The latter use does not appeal to the Johnses, who envision a family-friendly business.

With the setbacks and disappointments, they have not set a date for opening but are moving in that direction. They have a sales tax number. They are working with the state Department of Health to get licensed.

"We're hoping to get it open before Christmas," Johns said.

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