The Towne Grill has been serving local diners for decades
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Over coffee and poached eggs on English muffins, Bill Plassmeyer visits with his friends, whom he has been meeting at The Towne Grill for decades.
“I’m up here every day,” Plassmeyer said. “I’ve been a Towne Grill-er since forever.”
The food is great — made to one’s own recipe if he asks. But the company is better, not only among the long-time coffee groups, but also from the service.
“As long as they keep Shawna (Carlson) here, it’ll be running smooth,” Plassmeyer said. “If you’re lucky, you might get a little hug and peck on the cheek.” That’s a tradition that’s lasted longer than the diner has been inside the old bus stop at 315 Jefferson St. Aggie Schwartz spent 38 years serving up food with a smile — even by memory as was the requirement when under the ownership of Fred and Mary Boeckman on Madison Street. “Aggie could run this place by herself,” Plassmeyer said. And coffee club regular Randy Waltz agreed. “Fred was a unique guy, he never wrote anything down. He’d have 20-30 orders going in his head. “There were no tickets, and he almost never made a mistake. It was amazing.” Whether at the narrow, wait-in-line location on Madison Street or in its current location that seats about 40, The Towne Grill is a Landmark. The city Historic Preservation Commission awarded it the same-named award in May. “When they moved” from Madison Street, “my clothes didn’t smell like grease anymore,” Plassmeyer remembered. Long-time patrons remember waiting in line for lunch at the first location. And the owner would get grumpy with someone who sat down for a cup of coffee when dozens were standing in line for lunch along the 10-seat bar.
“The food has always been good and reasonable,” said Mary Rademan, also a regular for breakfast with her husband, Steve, who added, “It’s working man’s food.”
Gary Davidson, another coffee club member, agreed. “It’s reasonable, the orders are fast, the food’s good, and the help is excellent.”
But lawyers, legislators and even the governor have found themselves in the home-like setting in search of a hardy meal. It always has been a place where suits and blue collars mingled. “A lot of interesting people come through those front doors,” Plassmeyer said. And there’s no special treatment. “Higher and lower class people were no different,” Schwartz said. “Even the governor got a to-go order and waited in line.” It’s also a homeplace. “If you don’t show up, they miss you; they’ll check in on you,” Davidson said.
And when people do walk in, they’re greeted by name or nickname — and often a joke or a razzing.
“Everybody knows everybody. If you came in more than twice, they’d make it their business to know who you were,” Schwartz said.
She grew up at the diner, starting at age 16 and retiring after 38 years.
“I spent more time there than I did at home,” Schwartz said. “I went from a teenager to a grandma there.”
Bobby Love remembers coming in for French fries before church on Wednesdays as a child.
“The atmosphere is downto-earth; they’re people you can talk to,” Love said. “I hope they never close.”
Some of the coffee groups have games they play to decide who pays the day’s tab and others will spar each other in trivia. And there’s never a shortage of a little gossip.
Favorite dishes include the hashbrowns, biscuits and gravy, and Aggie’s special — sausage and eggs on toast.
“Their brain sandwich is out of this world,” Love said.
When Ryan and Stacey Butler bought the business one year ago Saturday, they kept the recipes and the charm, which kept the customers, too.
“The best thing is we didn’t change anything,” Stacey said. “The regular customers were part of the package.”
But they had to win over the customers, she said.
It was like a job interview, Stacey said. “They wanted to know all about us,” she said. “They’re a fun group.”
The Butlers, who still work their full-time jobs, are fourth in ownership. Mel Erhardt opened the business in the 1940s. Then the Boeckmans operated it for a couple of decades before Gloria Vogt took over in the 1990s.
“The recipes have been passed on,” Schwartz said. “It’s not fast food. It’s prepared from scratch — homemade pies, chicken and dumplings, fried apples.”
Stacey added, “The pancakes are famous; we wouldn’t change it.”
Ryan enjoyed eating breakfast every morning, before heading a block to work for the U.S. Post Office. Instead of the property going to someone else for a parking lot, the Butlers bought it and hope to carry on the country-cooking, generation-spanning hospitality tradition.
“It’s a neat history; we keep adding to it,” Stacey said. “We hope to keep it another 20 years the same way.”