In true Minnesota fashion, Tony Nicklow didn’t let a snowstorm prevent the delivery of prime rib to the Gophers.
Nicklow catered recruiting events for the Gophers football team during the Tim Brewster era. He was preparing to do the same for new coach Jerry Kill for the first time in December 2010, when he learned that blizzard-like weather was preventing the Gophers coaches and recruits from getting to TCF Bank Stadium.
Coaches asked Nicklow if he could bring it to the Bierman Field Athletic Building, and the owner of Tony’s Diner drove his car four blocks in a Dinkytown whiteout.
After the dinner, Kill and other coaches pushed Nicklow’s vehicle out of the snow.
“Whatever they want,” Nicklow said, “I never said no.”
Nicklow missed a friend’s wedding in Omaha to cater for the team. He was on vacation in China when P.J. Fleck became the team’s coach in January, so he came back to the United States about a week early to make sure he kept his gig.
Tony’s Diner, before the sun rises or a customer arrives, makes breakfast for 120 — the Gophers football team — every day during training camp and five days per week during the season.
It’s unclear if Nicklow’s restaurant will remain involved with the Gophers next year when the Athletes Village will open with a dining area and nutrition center. But Nicklow is hopeful he’ll continue cooking for the Gophers in some capacity. His catering for football and other Gophers sports is a financial boost and a connection to the university for a man who grew up attending Gophers football games after working at his father’s steakhouse at the corner of Oak St. and Washington Ave.
Nicklow even prepares his body physically for the job.
“You have to go to bed and get your rest just like these guys,” he said. “It’s not a joke.”
Hats off to the cook
The diner sets up breakfast for the football team — including a live omelet station — seven days per week during training camp. Wilson Apuparo, a cook who started working at the restaurant when it opened in 2001, arrives as early as 3:45 a.m. to begin cooking, and he stays at the diner until about 4 p.m. Some of the menu changes daily — such as the flavor of French toast or the type of sausage available for omelets — but there are mainstays, including 40 pounds of hash browns.
Apuparo has seen one Gophers football game. He prefers to watch Minnesota United FC. The cook said he’s often so tired when he comes home he doesn’t even think about eating.
But in the early morning Tuesday, he moved from task to task with no break: laying French toast on the griddle; opening the oven, where ham and sausage filled all three racks; stirring grits on a stovetop. Ecuadorean music played from a speaker plugged into Apuparo’s iPhone.
He is often the only person in the restaurant until about 6:30 a.m., when Nicklow and a couple of other employees arrive to pack the diner’s yellow van.
“He’s not just a vendor,” former Gophers tight end Drew Goodger said of Nicklow, who prepares omelets for players. “He’s kind of a face that you always look forward to seeing.”
In with the team
Nicklow said his restaurant reminded Greg Davis, a former member of the football program’s video staff, of the Greek diners in Davis’ hometown of Chicago. Nicklow started doing business with the Gophers about seven years ago, after a member of the team’s recruiting staff asked Davis about the chicken sandwich he had delivered. He began catering recruiting dinners.
Once the NCAA approved unlimited meals for athletes in 2014, Nicklow catered breakfasts, too. Cooking for football led to working with other teams — basketball, hockey, volleyball, swimming, wrestling.
“Those gyros,” former punter Peter Mortell said. “I’m starting to salivate thinking about those.”
Three years ago, Nicklow asked the team for a ticket to a game, and he received a field pass to Minnesota’s win over Michigan in Ann Arbor. He said his flight to Michigan got canceled, but the trip meant enough to him to take a Greyhound bus with a midnight stop in Chicago. When the team’s director of operations learned about his journey, he told Nicklow to fly back on the team plane. The diner owner calls it the greatest day of his life.
“I would have a hard time believing that relationship with Tony is going to be completely lost throughout the whole kind of transition into the Village,” said Goodger, who joked that he ate Nicklow’s pancakes for all three meals. “It’d be a shame if it was. He’s so ingrained in the program.”
The diner creates a college town vibe for a team inside a major city. Nicklow, after so many mornings, recognizes players who step inside his restaurant. An oar signed by Fleck hangs from a wall.
“Gopher athletics and Tony kind of go hand-in-hand,” Goodger said.
Nicklow has bought into the hype surrounding this year’s team — most of which is because of Fleck. He wears a “Row the Boat” wristband, and he said he knows the coach “exudes that excellence he wants, that eliteness” because Fleck once told him to make sure every Gopher thanked Nicklow for the food.
How do the current players like the food? The Gophers athletic department did not provide the Star Tribune access to the breakfast service.
Before Fleck arrived, breakfast service lasted about 90 minutes. Now, because Fleck moves at “hyper speed,” according to Nicklow, it’s only about half an hour long.
The diner crew hastened its pace just before 7 a.m., when Nicklow began loading insulated crates of food into a yellow van. He and Apuparo threw broken-down boxes into a dumpster, and Nicklow jogged across his restaurant’s back parking lot.
“All right,” he said before hopping in the car. “Right on time.”