Photos by Meg Hibbert
It’s the kind of place where the waitresses call you “Honey,” know your favorite booth, how you like your eggs and the way you take your coffee.
For more than 54 years, The Pancake House in Salem has been a place to get sausage gravy biscuits and eggs, homemade meatloaf and other specials of the day, to catch up on the news and above all, see friends.
For a while this year, it looked as though the red neon sign on the diner-style restaurant on Apperson Drive next to Lee-Hi Lanes might go dark. Sagging revenues, disappointed customers and staffing problems plagued the restaurant.
But now like the banner sign owners Tom Stover and Tim Bailey hung outside says, “Dave is back” – and he is doing his best to save The Pancake House.
“I promised these girls,” General Manager Dave Aspell said, referring to longtime waitresses Patricia Doss and others, who include his own daughter, Jessica Aspell, and granddaughter Aurora Stevens. Dave Aspell was at The Pancake House for four years until 2011.
Aspell blamed the fall-off in business before he came back four weeks ago on “bad managers who kinda ruined the business.” They had also not valued longtime employees, he explained, such as waitresses Catherine DeLano – who was here 40 years, Karen Hale, 38 years, Tracey and others, like dishwasher Betty Carper, who will be 83 next week. “It’s the girls who make this place friendly,” he emphasized.
“They treat the customers like they are friends, and most of them are,” Dave Aspell said. “I’m just here to help them run the place.”
It’s the people and the cooking, of course, why longtime customers keep coming back. Aspel can cook, too – 37 years in the business – but he’s hired more cooks and other staff to make sure breakfast, lunch and dinner are served hot and quickly.
Tuesday this week was a test, and the staff passed. The line of people was out the door, waiting to get into the restaurant which seats 70. “Voting day really brought people out for breakfast,” Aspell explained. Four of the City of Salem’s polling places are right up the road, at the Salem Civic Center. The polls open at 6 a.m. The Pancake House opens at 6, too, and stays open until 8 p.m.
A number of those came back Tuesday for lunch and/or dinner, like North Lakes residents Dan and Judy Kaufman, who were eating dinner at 4 p.m. that day. They were having cheeseburgers, onion rings and dishes of pink grapefruit. “We have a grapefruit every day,” Dan said.
Discussing the possibility The Pancake House might close its doors, he emphasized, “Don’t let them close this place. We would die without it.”
The Kaufmans come every day to eat. “There are a lot of elderly people who come here. We’ve gotten to know many of them.”
“It’s like a home for a lot of people our age,” added Judy, who is 71. Her husband is 85 and doesn’t look it.
“Tell them it’s the coffee,” which keeps him looking younger, he said. “It’s as good a coffee as you’ll find in the Valley.”
“And the waitresses are just outstanding since Dave took it over,” Judy Kaufman said.
George Bettis has been eating at The Pancake House since 1975. “The first time it was in that little place over there which I don’t think could have seated more than 15 or 16 people.”
That location burned, and the larger one was built. “There’s a lot of people within a mile or mile-and-a-half who are on fixed incomes, and that’s why they come here to eat,” said Bettis, whose favorite booth is No. 5, just to the left of the door. That’s where the “mayor of Salem,” the late Cooney Counts, used to sit for breakfast and supper.
The food brings Bettis back every day. Some of his favorites are the homemade spaghetti and silver dollar pancakes. “And the service. The help are very helpful,” he added.
Pam Jones of Salem was having dinner food: fried shrimp, hushpuppies, lima beans, beets and a biscuit. Her friend, Trudy Hendricks, was eating breakfast – fried egg, bacon and two big pancakes.
“I’m 95 years old. You can say it’s from eating the pancakes,” said Hendricks, laughing. “I think breakfast tastes better in the evening than in the morning,” she added. She’s been eating at The Pancake House since 1974, usually for breakfast.
“It’s been here forever; it seems like. It’s nice to have oldtimers back,” she said, referring to Dave.
Getting the regular customers back and attracting new ones is the goal of the staff.
“We used to have a lot of loyal customers who kept these people working,” said waitress Patricia Doss, and “people who brought their children and grandchildren back. I’d love to be able to see that again.”
The Pancake House is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 6 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Sunday.