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Friday, February 03, 2006

Keeping the community alive: community-owned cafes play central role for rural towns in Washington County

When the owner of the Hometown Café in Barnes wanted to retire, the residents of this small rural town of 144 knew their options were limited. With nobody showing any interest in taking it over, they worried that they’d lose what many considered a critical component of their town. So they did the only thing left to them—they borrowed money and bought it themselves.

From the beginning of negotiations to the purchase and fundraiser for additional money for supplies and equipment, the process took only six months. “It went fast,” said Gloria Moore, a member of the Barnes Community Development Corporation, whose 100-plus stockholders shared the initial expenses. Which tells you something of the value a community places on its restaurant.

Kenny Stettnisch, the mayor of Barnes and a frequent customer of the café, said a café is much more than simply a place to eat, or a convenience to the residents. “It’s the life of a community,” he said.

His sentiment is shared by residents of other towns in Washington County. Besides Barnes, the towns of Haddam, pop. 160, and Palmer, pop. 102, both have come into ownership of their local cafes. Each town went about it in a different way, and each town has seen its own successes and failures. The cafes are gathering places, meeting halls, a place to catch up on the news and get in out of the rain. As one customer said, “It’s good food and good fellowship.”

It’s also hard work. But these towns are intent on keeping their cafes open. This is how they’re doing it.

The Hometown Café, Barnes

The wooden structure looks like something out of an Old West boom town, with a tall flat-faced front, a metal stairway leading to the second floor, and a weathered wood exterior, recently painted. Following this theme are painted silhouettes of gunslingers and gunfights in the top floor windows. All that’s needed to complete the picture is a hitching rail out front and tumbleweeds tumbling down the road.

For 13 years the Hometown Café (or Home Town Café, depending on which sign you go by) has been owned and operated by the Barnes Community Development Corporation. Any major decisions regarding finances or maintenance are the responsibility of a seven-member board of directors, but the day-to-day operations are left to the manager and staff.

This is good for the employees, who prefer to cook, serve and baby-sit without having to worry about where they’ll get the money for a new stove. That’s the BCDC’s headache, and it’s something they’re working on.

“It might be time for a new fundraiser,” Stettnisch said. A new stove costs $3,000. So far the Lions Club, a major benefactor, has anteed up a third of that, and the board is shopping around for a used model.

Besides revenue generated from hungry customers, the café gets some of its operating finances through the bingo hall, which is also owned by the BCDC. “If it’s doing a little better,” Stettnisch said, “sometimes we borrow money from them. And sometimes it goes the other way.”

On a January morning so warm it could pass for a day in April the mayor was sitting at the table by the front counter. With him were two other self-described regulars, Darrell Keefover and Verlin Richter. Keefover lives a few blocks away; Richter’s farm is nine miles south of town.

It was normally the ladies’ table, Keefover explains. The breakfast crowd consists of a different bunch than the lunch crowd, with the women sharing this table and the men another across the room. He explained that the problems facing Barnes are simple: lack of people, lack of adequate housing, lack of jobs. Even if old bachelor farmers like Richter wanted to move into town—and they don’t, he said, they tend to stay out on the farm until they’re, and he let it drop with a finger jabbed at Richter—there’s no place to live.

Richter nodded his head. “I’m 81 and never been married. I’m going to the nursing home,” he said.

On this day the café is lacking people, too, the competition of a big funeral and an auction whittling down the customer pool. But then winters tend to be slow anyway, said Pat Rahe, a part-time waitress.

“There’s not many restaurants left,” Keefover said. “Most of the people who eat here are older. Young people don’t support the café.”

“I eat here every day,” Richter said. “If I don’t come up here I tell them because they worry about me.”

“I call!” came a shout from the kitchen.

Checking up on regulars who miss a meal is customary at small-town eateries. That, and making special events even more special.

I’m told that whenever Rahe knows about someone’s birthday she bakes them a cake.

Keefover said he wasn’t going to tell her about his birthday because he didn’t want her to go to the trouble.

“When’s your birthday, Darrell?” Rahe called.

“I’m not gonna tell you.”

“I’ll bake you a cake.”

“You’re going to bake me a cake and I hate to see you have to do it,” he said.

“Why?”

“When is it, Darrell, the fourteenth?” This from Stettnisch.

“Tenth.”

“February the tenth!” Rahe practically crowed in glee. And then, softer, “You know I enjoy doing it.”

The Hometown Café employs one person full-time and six others part-time, and every one of them is as caring and friendly as Rahe.

“Finding help is difficult, but they do find good help,” Stettnisch said. He added that the strength of the café lies in its good home-cooked meals. And the Wednesday pan-fried chicken really packs them in, so much so that Stettnisch claimed to make reservations. “But we still have struggles,” he shrugged.

How important is a café to the community’s identity? When I pose this question, Keefover shakes his head and glances down at the table. “Without a café,” he said, “the community is over.”

Hometown Café is open Monday through Saturday from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

On Sundays, Richter drives to Hanover and gets his lunch at Ricky’s Cafe. It’s farther to drive, but what’s a bachelor farmer to do?

Palmer Cafe

Multi-hued brick, blocky, with staggered sides like steps near the roof and gingham curtains showing through the front windows, the Palmer Café sits at the very heart of the town. Palmer itself is an anomaly. With unpaved streets and only a hundred-and-some residents, Palmer still has a grocer, post office, lumber yard, grain elevator, barber shop, insurance agency, filling station, truck repair shop and, of course, the café.

To keep the town alive, it takes hard work and a close-knit community, said Randy Hiltgen. Hiltgen serves on the café board and can occasionally be found behind the counter with his wife, doing their part as volunteers. It’s something many of the residents do. In fact, there’s a sign-up sheet to schedule volunteer help for the evenings they’re open.

“Finding help is a tussle,” he said. Fortunately Palmer is a farming community and many of the farmers’ wives help out with the cooking.

For over 20 years the community has owned the café. Back then the owner was wanting out and didn’t have any prospects so he and his neighbors worked out a deal—he’d sell it to them cheap. Residents threw in $25 per share, or whatever they could afford or felt right, and enough money was raised to purchase the building and stock the kitchen. The only time the café has closed since then is on Sundays.

It’s a constant struggle, though, to make ends meet.

“It’s like we tell them at the yearly members meeting every April,” Hiltgen said, “we lose money from eight o’clock till eleven, and make it from eleven to two, and when we’re open from two to five we lose it, and from five to nine we make money. The coffee drinkers don’t make us any money but we keep it open because it’s a place people come to meet and visit with their neighbors.”

After all the bills and salaries were paid last year, the café made a $100 profit. “And that’s all we care about,” Hiltgen said. “We can break even and it’s okay.”

The bank contributes sometimes, especially on costly items that need repair or replacement, and donations continue to flow in through special requests or through a jar situated next to the cash register.

A recent project involved insulating the walls and replacing windows, something that the community in typical fashion took to heart. The windows were donated, the bank offered generous sums of cash, and the men gathered in the evenings, rolled up their sleeves and did the work themselves.

It’s not just about the convenience of having a place to eat in town. It goes much deeper than that. It’s a matter of what happens if you lose the café, or another business? What then?

“People here in Palmer know that if we lose it, same way if we lose the grocery store, and on down the line, you just start a domino effect,” Hiltgen said.

“The café is horrendously important,” said Rhonda Meyerhoff. Meyerhoff is something of an anomaly herself, being a bookkeeper by trade and a part-time cook who claims she can’t cook. This last part is patently false. The customers lined up at the buffet table all spoke highly of the cooking and said they come back every day for more.

As in the other cafes, segregation seems to be the norm. In Palmer, men sit at the counter and the women at the tables, and on fish fry night the men work the kitchen and the women sip the coffee. Also, the café serves as a community center, there being none in town.

The walls are decorated with beer posters, old photographs of historic events and people, and a big display of Washington County News articles. In the foyer, shared between the café and the barbershop, is the community bulletin board. Besides the usual notices of recycling schedules, American Legion dances, a Valentine Day dinner at Zion Lutheran Church and cars for sale, there’s a note asking for help in locating a female redbone coondog that answers to Daisy. The dog has no collar.

Hiltgen credits the success of the café to the quality home-cooked food—and plenty on the plate—plus the fact that lunch diners can get in and grab the food with no perceptible delay. Regular menu items are available in addition to the daily buffet specials.

The Palmer Café differs from other community-owned restaurants in that it serves beer. It’s also by far the largest building, which makes for a higher overhead in energy costs. Each shift consists of a cook and a waitress, so on days when 30 meals are served it can be somewhat hectic.

Its hours are 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings from 6 until whenever the last customer walks out the door. Which could be midnight, Hiltgen said.

The idea of all the work required to run a restaurant day in and day only to show $100 profit at the end of the year gnawed at me. I reminded Hiltgen that in a big city the profit would seem far too little to justify the expense.

He laughed. “It gives us a place and pride of community where we can say, hey, we have a restaurant, about the only place in Washington County where on eight o’clock on a Wednesday night you can go in and get a hamburger and French fries. Not too many places you can do that.”

Haddam Cafe

White-washed brick, air conditioner suspended above the front door, lace curtains, heart decorations, CAFE in big red letters, an ice machine—the Haddam Café, sandwiched between a tin barricade and the tiny limestone community center, is as plain Jane as they come, but there’s something about this place that positively invites the hungry traveler to enter. It’s not just the locals that feel that way. Just ask Eddie Ray Cantrell, if you can find him.

Odds are you won’t unless you catch him in hunting season. Otherwise he’ll be back in Lancaster, Ky., where he’s the executive vice president of the National Softball Association and the National Director of Umpires. His title sounds impressive but Cantrell admitted he’d rather be in Kansas. In Haddam, Kansas, to be precise.

When I walked into the café I didn’t know about Cantrell, had never heard of him or met a soul who lived in Haddam. None of that mattered to the women working that day. I ordered a burger and fries and sat down alone. When my lunch was served it was placed at the table where the staff, all five of them, sat down to eat. “You can eat with us,” the lady said.

The lady was Oleta Zenger, manager of the café, and that kind of down-home friendliness was no doubt what won Cantrell over. My burger was mostly intact when I was introduced to him via a framed letter removed from the bulletin board and thrust into my hands.

It was much better than the notice asking that the person who recently lost a blue Roughneck trashcan lid fitting a 32-gallon can please come to a certain house to pick it up. “It needs to go home,” the note said.

As I read Cantrell’s letter, Zinger told me that the café had been owned by the City of Haddam for around 10 years. It was by now a familiar tale, an owner wanting to retire, a city not wanting its heart cut out, the community coming together to make it happen. Ordinary chores like ordering food and managing the help were left to the manager, and the city council handled the bills.

And here was where Haddam deviated from the other community-owned cafes—it is open seven days a week, with Sunday being its busiest day. People from neighboring towns flock in to partake of the three specials served that day, and it’s not uncommon for the café to serve up 60 dinners. A similar thing happens on Wednesday evenings, when biscuits and gravy are served until 8 p.m.

Normal hours are 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. everyday including Sunday, and Wednesday evening from 5-8 p.m.

“We’re always busy,” Zenger said. Though breakfast isn’t a big item, lunch can be hectic. On the day I visited there were five people working, and once the place thinned out they were able to find something for themselves. Sometimes, there’s nothing left of the two different specials they serve, so they either cook something else up or go hungry.

Still, it’s not always this way. “It’s easier finding customers than help,” Zenger said. Usually three employees work each day, but if it gets busy they call someone else or another resident will step in.

The city pays for utilities but when something needs upgraded the community steps in with donations and fundraisers. A new floor was laid down through the generosity of the townspeople, and the bank pitched in $300 in gift certificates for the annual community Christmas party. Zenger said much of the money went into repairs, and hinted that it might be time for another fundraiser.

Birthdays and special occasions are carefully noted by the staff, and if any regular misses a meal phone calls are quickly made. Zenger told of one time when a regular coffee drinker didn’t show up and the rest of the group of regulars hopped in their trucks and went looking for him.

Birthdays are a little different in Haddam. Rather than receiving a cake, honorees are expected to provide cookies and buy coffee for the rest of the community. And if someone can’t make it down to the café for lunch, the staff will gladly deliver it.

Like Palmer and Barnes, the people of Haddam see the café as the heart of the town. The big fear is of losing it. Dody Cramer, a waitress, said, “When it’s gone, there won’t be much left.”

Besides a bank and a post office, there’s not much left now. Cantrell pointed this out in his letter, but he wasn’t referring to it as a bad thing. There’s nothing about Haddam that he doesn’t like.

His letter opens with “There’s a place in Kansas that I long to go home to.” The reasons are spelled out in detail, including the slow pace of life, the friendliness of the people, the unspoiled beauty, the solitude, “the cows being driven down the town road,” and especially the café, where there’s always a pot of coffee on. And especially, he said, “there’s hope.”

Hope seems an odd choice of words for rural communities at the beginning of the 21st century, when so many are fading away like the color in old overalls left outside too long in the hot summer sun. But perhaps that’s all that’s left at the end of the day, and the desire to keep their way of life alive. There’s always another fundraiser or donation.

I tracked Cantrell down in Kentucky and asked him how he had found Haddam and why it was so special.

After pheasant and quail hunting had dried up around Seneca and then Concordia in 1993, he and a friend headed to Washington County, where others from their town had hunted in the past. After meeting several landowners, they were introduced to Warren Zenger, who allowed them to hunt his property on two conditions: “If you see any cattle, stay the hell out of the field,” and “You have to eat at the café.”

“We needed a place to eat, and we sure needed a place to hunt, so both fit into the mix pretty well,” he said. “I didn’t realize at the time that Haddam would adopt me and that I would call it my second home.”

Through the years the café has become much more than just a place to eat. Cantrell calls it his home, and the people his family. “Not one drop of the blood in my veins is the same blood as anyone in that town,” he said, “but we are still family.”

In his letter Cantrell touched on things that are pure Haddam and pure Barnes and pure Palmer, the reason why these little towns refuse to go quietly into that long night. “These people are preserving a way of life that is bygone in so many small towns in this world,” he said. “Progress and the 21st century haven’t ruined them. They are genuine and they are proud. I can’t imagine not having the café there. It would break my heart.”

1 comment:

EmpCary@cox.net said...

I wonder if Kenny Stettnisch is Kenneth Gene Stettnisch, husband of Ramona Joyce Keefover. If so, I would greatly appreciate learning how I might contact her. Several years ago, she expressed interest in a book I was writing about the Pritchard Family, with a section on the Keefovers who went to Kansas from West Virginia. The book is now available, but I cannot locate her by email. Many thanks if you can help make the connection. By the way, your piece about the cafes of rural towns is a fascinating piece of Americana.