Reviewing the Meadowthorpe Cafe, a Herald-Leader restaurant critic wrote: "In these tough economic times, there are a few eating places where a dollar can be stretched. The Meadow thorpe Cafe on Leestown Road is one of them."
That was in 1991.
Today, the restaurant and catering business can still be counted on for "country cooking at affordable prices," as the banner outside proclaims. Its owners expect to sell it in the coming month, but they say the new owners plan to keep it the same, save for maybe a new menu item or two. And why not? Despite competition from new restaurants farther out Leestown and cuts to the labor force, the cafe has a full parking lot and a loyal set of regulars for breakfast and lunch. What's its secret?
Mary Polites has worked there since 1999: "We serve comfort food. Hamburger steak is a favorite, green beans with fat back, corn pudding, chess pie. It's all in-house, home-cooked food. These recipes go back in time. This place is a real comfort zone. You might have a few tears in the upholstery ... but there's an air of self-deprecation here. We tell people to come back — the entertainment's free."
Polites, the former wife of one of the owners, Tom Polites, says the Meadowthorpe Cafe "has a lot of yesterday in it." Nostalgia hangs heavy.
Juanita Bernard has worked there 23 years: "I came with the furniture," she jokes, referring to 1994, when the place sold to the current owners. Bernard, 72 — "I'm proud of my age" — learned to cook from her grandmother and has been working in restaurants since she was 14.
She comes in at 5 a.m. to make the biscuits and get the line ready for opening at 7 a.m. Biscuits and gravy are her specialty.
"I'm pretty much on that grill from the time I come in. Everybody in town knows me," she says. "People call me 'granny' or 'mom.' I love doing this as long as everybody leaves me alone," she jokes.
She directs a question to a customer sitting down: "Is this your first time here?" "No," he says, "but it's been a long time, eight to 10 years."
"I thought I recognized you," she says. Bernard's daughter works at the cafe part-time now, too.
Julia Baltimore has worked there "off and on" for more than 15 years: The meat loaf is her favorite dish. Ask her if the corn bread has sugar in it: "Honey, everything we make has sugar in it."
Like most of the other employees, her job there is doing a little of everything. Part of the appeal of the place, she says, is that "we know just about everybody who comes in the door — if not by name, by face." And, she adds, "We have a ball."
Tom Polites is co-owner. He recognizes the value of the location: "There's been some kind of restaurant here for more than 50 years. First it was an ice-cream shop, then they added hot dogs ...." It's been called the Meadow thorpe Cafe since sometime in the 1960s, he thinks.
Polites and Brent Porter bought the restaurant and catering business from Clay "Bo" Wallace in 1994. They added booths, extended the menu and made other changes. But now they're looking to get out.
"It's time for him to retire," Porter said of Polites, who is 69. "And this is a hard business. You just don't leave it when you go home. You've got the phone right beside you, and you never know who's going to call."
But Porter said he plans to stay on at least for a while after any sale, and all of the workers are staying.
Mary Polites: That familiarity is the norm. "There's a Saturday morning tradition. A lot of families come in. People who came here as children now bring their own children in."
Familiarity breeds contentment in this case.
Martha Thomas has worked there a little more than a year: Thomas found her way there through Julia Baltimore. Thomas is described by Mary Polites as "cook, server and evangelist."
She doesn't know about that, she demurs. "I just stick to my morals and values," she says, smiling.
She likes working there because "you meet a lot of people and you're helping people in a spiritual way, too."
Brent Porter is co-owner: "I do most of the cooking here, fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, pork chops. What you see is what you get here. There's a total collage of people who come in, and that's the fun part. From the mayor to people at the stockyards. Al Gore stopped in. Tab Hunter used to come here every single year with the horse sales."
Christy Smith is the dishwasher: Smith also helps cook and does a little of everything, like everybody else. How does she like her job? "I love it, love it, love it. I couldn't wait to get to work this morning."
On this day she came out of the kitchen with a big bucket of ice. "How are you?" a customer asks her. "Better now," she says. "Why's that?" "Because you're here."
The customer, the Rev. Thomas Wallace of New Birth Church of Christ, says, "See how kind they are? That's why I come in here."
The cafe's country cooking and reasonable prices haven't changed, but the world has forced other changes on it.
Mary Polites: "When I first came here, there were a lot more factory jobs. Now the type of customer is different. We used to stay open until 9 p.m. Now we close at 4 p.m. because of the economy. All the development on Lees town affected us for awhile.
"People had more options with Applebee's, McDonald's opening up. We don't get the shifts like we used to, the rushes at 11:20, 12:05, 12:40 ... Now the business is more evenly distributed."
Bernard, however, has a slightly different take: "It's still the same old, same old."
Mary Polites gets the last word: "From a worker's perspective, there's ... always something to be learned about people here. They will tell us things, they will eat our food and lots of times they'll thank us for just being here. Nobody leaves these premises feeling badly."