By Maureen Vander Sanden

SLN staff

Stepping into Elkhorn’s latest downtown eatery, customers are instantly greeted with soothing aromas of lavender and citrus countered by the robust smell of freshly ground coffee beans.

The inviting scents coming from inside The Essential Café & Bistro are quickly matched with warm greetings from mother and son Joanne and Nathanael Benkowski, who are busy chopping, blending and brewing from behind the 25-foot, solid-oak countertop where customers get a front-row seat as their lunch is prepared in a fully exposed, quaint kitchen.

The cafe’s brilliant lime walls are complemented with consoling colors of cream and cappuccino.

Patrons of Elkhorn’s newest eatery, Essential Café & Bistro, will be greeted by mother and son duo Joanne and Nathanael Benkowski before the pair gets busy in the kitchen preparing the freshest and food packed with the most “essential” nutrients.

The owners want to be clear – this is “more than a coffee shop.”

The charming café, tucked next to J. Robert’s at 21 S. Wisconsin St., opened its doors June 14 offering an all-organic, nutritious menu of breakfast, lunch, soups and freshly-baked goodies.

So far, business has been “very good,” Joanne said. “We’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback. Our only complaint was that we weren’t open on Wednesdays, and now we are.”

After losing her job at a Madison consulting firm in January, where she worked as a resource manager, Joanne, 46, decided it was time to switch gears from the daily grind of the corporate world.

“I have always loved cooking for and being around people – I’ve sort of always been the hostess with the most-ess,” she said.

“Nathanael kept telling me to open a soup kitchen. He was all for it and so we went for it.”

She and 21-year-old Nathanael, who decided against the traditional and pricey college route, began shopping around for the perfect place to set up what she describes as an “upscale Panera Bread.”

First, the pair began looking at Lake Geneva, where popular joints like Simple and the Sweet House of Madness prove a niche for the all-natural is in high demand.

“I’ve been living in Elkhorn for 15 years. There is less flow here, but there is a niche for the all-organic, fresh and nutritious,” she explained.

While she and Nathanael had their work cut out renovating the space that once housed Fink Ink Tattoo in order to bring their chic vision for atmosphere to fruition, it was creating an equally sophisticated menu that posed the biggest challenge.

“We wanted to have nutritious food people would enjoy, and offer it at the right price,” she said.

Inspired by her favorite aromatherapy line of essential oils (which are for sale at the café), she got busy building her menu using the most nutritious-packed ingredients.

“It’s the same concept here as with the essential oils, there are no fillers. Everything is pure and natural,” she said.

The bistro also boasts local brands like Alterra coffee and Rishi teas, as well as locally produced food during season.

A favorite among customers is a tossup, according to Joanne.

For breakfast, she pushes her $6.50 signature plate – organic chocolate coconut pancakes, made with raw cocoa, virgin coconut oil, and chocolate chips, topped with whip cream.

Lunch favorites among customers are the light and fresh Strawberry Medley Signature Salad ($7.95) and the Steak & Spinach Panini ($8.50) made with beef tenderloin, raw goat white cheddar and served on chiabatta bread.

Carolyn Ness, who recently visited from South Dakota said she was happy to come back to her hometown to see places like The Essential Bistro cropping up.

In addition to cozy inside seating, Essential Café & Bistro invites guests to enjoy a drink outdoors where a quaint courtyard offers a relaxing space to unwind.

“People should get back to basic food,” she said. “If I lived here, I’d definitely come back.”

Her mom Jeanne Hoffman agreed, saying, “The food here is fabulous.”

“She’s (Joanne) really personable and there is something nice about seeing your food prepared,” she continued.

Joanne said those who do get “to watch the show a bit,” will see that her and Nathanael “mesh well together” in the kitchen – another component of the business she is happy to see working out well.

“We complement each other,” she said. “At home, that is not always the case.”

The Essential Bistro & Café is open Monday- Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

For daily specials, call (262) 723-1500 or visit www.essentialcafebistro.comor find The Essential Café & Bistro on Facebook.



  1. alyssa mitone says:

    Food was fine but the service and atmosphere left lots to be desired! We over heard the owner yelling at the local chamber office on the phone and it was VERY unprofessional. Something about how she thought it was bad of them to charge to be a member. How do you think they work, lady? Obviously never owned a small business before. This frequent visitor to Elkhorn won’t be going back!

  2. It is unfortunate to see people (who don’t exist) feeling the necessity to undermine something good and positive for the City of Elkhorn and surrounding area. I’m pretty sure for those who know me, the post above for them would prove to be inconsistent with their experience here at the cafe.

  3. Andy Morshlad says:

    I have eaten at this eatery and the food is remarkable. Like nothing you can find. It’s very fresh and very satisfying. To post a comment about a one time alleged overheard conversation is just irresponsible and could hurt the business. It’s a mother and son team. That’s commendable. Whether or not this incident actually happened the previous poster needs to lighten up.

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