Death of A Smalltown Cafe
For 3 years, my son Z and I went for breakfast every other week at this little cafe down the road from our house. I loved this place because we would walk in and everyone would greet us. The waitress would bring us our beverages. The cook already had our orders in before we even sat down. There is a lot to be said about walking into a place and instantly feeling at home.
For my final paper I chose to write about this cafe and shortly after I started writing it, we found out that they were closing the restaurant, for good.
The following is a longish excerpt.
In a very ironic sort of way, the mini strip mall where Patti J’s resides is on land that once was acres of maybe corn, or wheat, or soybeans. Regardless of what grew there, it was farm land that had long ago become nothing but an empty field. Much like a lot of the land around here, the land was sold to a developer, who turned it into single family homes. A small strip of the land was developed into two office buildings and the tiny strip mall that houses my personal favorite hometown cafe. Still nearby is a lone farmhouse with a barn still on its property; which these days, feels quite out of place.
Years ago you would have been hard pressed to find a stoplight in our town, the home to Patti J’s for the past five years. That’s because there were none; the town never needed any. You could look out your back window while doing dishes and see nothing but empty land for miles beyond. You could open your windows on a breezy summer night and rarely, if ever, hear a car pass by. Downtown consisted of The Corner Bar, a Catholic church, a farm and implement store, and a barber shop where the lone barber appropriately named “Butch” gave every man who walked through the doors the same haircut. The kids went to the café on the corner for an ice cream cone after school. It was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone; a place where you instantly felt like you belonged.
And then one day, someone figured out that there was a lot of land out here, and things changed.
When our town started developing 15 years ago, the changes came quickly. The new outlet mall that opened in town just off the freeway created traffic jams that only traffic lights could cure. The outlet mall, which attracted developers, caused many of the area farmers to sell their land for a good price. Open fields and quiet nights were replaced by townhouses and the sound of police sirens in the middle of the night.
The changes were immediately noticeable. The outlet mall spurred development of strip malls, fast food restaurants, and a grocery super store with high prices. Word got out that there was cheaper housing available, and people closer to the cities started migrating here. The housing developments multiplied so quickly that the schools ran out of room for the kids. Suddenly, there was construction everywhere; developers all hoping to capitalize on the increased traffic to town created by the mall.
In the meantime, farms started falling by the wayside. Both towns, separate yet joint entities that were both named after the Catholic Churches that had been founded first; saw their schools cave in to political correctness; when Halloween parties became Harvest parties and Christmas became “Winter Holiday.” With more and more farmers selling out, the implement store went out of business. The café on the corner and Butch’s barber shop became victims to what city officials saw as a necessary expansion to a busy road. Small town USA was no longer a small town.
And then along came Patti J’s.
Since the closure of the other café in town, which had been long gone by the time the strip mall popped up, there had been no place close where people could go eat a decent breakfast. The remaining farmers had no place to go for their sunny side up eggs and toast before going back about their day. There were a couple of chain- style restaurants situated to attract the outlet mall customers and yet seem to be designed without any regard to what town transplants call “old timers”. With a multitude of bars and enough pizza places to feed the entire town for supper in an evening, there was no inexpensive place to get a bite to eat for lunch on a Saturday afternoon.
When they opened, Patti J’s was a breath of fresh air, with the small town atmosphere that many of the locals had seen disappearing in recent years. The food was good, the prices great, and the service excellent. On any given morning you might’ve caught the cook Eric singing some goofy rendition of an Elvis song, while Bridgette rolled her eyes at him as she brought someone their breakfast. At any rate, the moment you walked into the restaurant, you immediately felt at home.
If you were in a hurry on a Saturday morning, you’d find out quickly that this was not the place for you, as the tiny 68 seat café often filled up fast, and kept the two cooks busy cranking out orders from the slightly cramped kitchen that overlooks the dining area. Still, this didn’t seem to deter the groups of people who constantly streamed in and out of the restaurant, and for most if not all of these people, the wait was worth it. With dishes called Patti J’s Fave (a monster sized chocolate chip pancake, named for owner Ciros’ daughter) and Jean Ann’s Fave (a flavorful bacon and mushroom omelet, named for Ciros’ wife) the menu certainly had a lot of options beyond your typical chain style family restaurant; and options which gave the restaurant it’s personal touch.
Though the food at Patti J’s was inarguably good, it was the comfortable atmosphere that kept most people coming back. After all, where else in town would you be able to find a group of old men in Wrangler jeans and John Deere hats flipping quarters-with the waitress joining in on the fun in between customers? Even Ciros, who was usually busy slaving away in the kitchen, could be seen sitting and chatting with the customers during his rare moments of down time. It’s this ease of familiarity that kept everyone coming back time and time again.
With 85 percent of the customers being regulars, it was easy for the staff to quickly get to know everyone, not just for what kind of omelet they wanted, but also, a little bit about their personal lives, as well. On one occasion, one of the regular customers had a birthday coming up. She joked to Ciros that she expected a birthday cake next time she came in for breakfast. The next time she came in, Ciros presented a giant sheet cake he had ordered especially for her. Everyone who came in for breakfast that morning was treated to a piece of birthday cake.
The relationship has always been reciprocal, as Bridgette learned firsthand a year or so ago, when her son in law died tragically in a snorkeling accident. When word got out many customers were supportive.
“A lot of the regulars that come here were at the benefit that we held for my daughter’s family,” she says with a slight smile. “I was so touched.”
A year ago, Ciros decided to change the hours of the café to only be open from 6am to 2pm every day, with extended hours for dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings. They’ve never been open on Mondays, something that doesn’t seem to be too off putting to customers. People accept it and change their days to accommodate the schedule. Some of the old timers are here almost every day. A group of teachers comes in every Thursday morning before classes start. A group of construction workers comes in on Saturday mornings. Just ask Bridgette; she has this proudly memorized and can rattle off the schedule if you ask.
When Ciros and his family went on vacation for two weeks last summer, he gave the staff time off and closed the café for the entire two weeks. The regulars, with no place to go during the time, found themselves headed to the chain restaurant that didn’t quite feel the same. When the café reopened two weeks later, many of the customers expressed their relief at having their hometown café open again. And yet, no one was mad about the closure. They understood.
Bridgette says that Ciros’ aim has always been to be that small town café that everyone wants. “We don’t want to be like those other restaurants,” she says, “we want to be different.
It was that sense of uniqueness that threw everyone into a wave of disbelief when Patti J’s announced that May 3rd would be the final day that their doors would be open. His lease was up, and Ciros decided not to renew.
“Rent everywhere in town is just too dang high,” one of the regulars, a man named Denny, says wistfully. Denny has been one of the regulars; coming here on Friday and Sunday mornings before his job stocking at a grocery store. No one knows why the café is closing and everyone, including Denny, has their theories on why Ciros- who remains tight lipped even when asked- is closing the café.
Some people surmise that it’s because of the sometimes long waits for food. Other, less familiar customers, say that the staff was always rude when they came in. Most people, the ones who didn’t care if they had to wait and knew that the staff was anything but rude, don’t care why the café is closing; they just know that they’re sorry to see it go.
Regardless of Ciros’ reasons, it’s evident that the impact will be felt differently by different people, particularly Bridgette, who is seen choking back tears as she greets every customer the last weekend of business for Patti J’s.
“You came in here for our last hurrah,” she tells them. She’s so distracted today that she screws up our order for the first time in three years. We don’t complain. Not only does it not feel right to complain to a waitress who is going to be unemployed in two days; but even a screwed up breakfast tastes just as good as any of the other food at Patti J’s.
Everyone seems to be in a good mood and it is doubtful that the restaurant is closing because of the lack of business. Some people already know the café is closing; others react with shock when they find out that come Monday, Bridgette will be filing for unemployment. With her forced smile she asks all the regulars, including us, where we’ll all eat breakfast now. Nobody seems to know the answer. When asked what she’ll do next, Bridgette seems just as lost.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she says glumly. “Unemployment isn’t going to be enough to get by on.”
She hears that some guy from Minneapolis has a dream to open a small café and might be taking over the business. She hopes so; she knows that the reasons why those that come here go far beyond the good food. She hopes that the place that occupies this space is the same type of restaurant, so everyone has somewhere to go for breakfast again. If it is, she’ll apply. She doesn’t live close and could probably work anywhere as a waitress, but she wants to work here, in our town, with the people who have become like family to her.
Remnants of days past are still visible here; from the old church which now houses a ballet studio, to the railroad tracks that no longer experiences the rumble created by the passing cargo train, to the occasional farm vehicle slowly inching down the now busy county roads. Once upon a time the only thing you had to do when you came to that intersection was to stop at the stop sign, look to your right and see the empty fields that today house a gas station and a bunch of corporate businesses that can be found anywhere else in America, not just here. Day by day, this town slowly becomes just like anywhere else.
The town continues to expand way beyond the vision the town’s founders likely imagined, and it’s hard to remember that this town was the small farming community that it once was. But for a few years at least, we had a place where we could walk in and feel like we were back home again. In a day and age when everything seems to keep moving at a faster pace, including the growth of our town, it was comforting to find a place where we could finally slow down long enough to sip our coffee and go back to a simpler time; even if only for a little while.
That was our Patti J’s café.
I’m sure going to miss those mushroom and cheese omelettes.