(Editor's Note: The small town cafe was once the heart and soul of the community. Today, they are a vanishing part of Americana. In this series of articles, writer Don McDowell offers a personal perspective on the small town cafes of Plymouth County.)
If the walls of Ruth's Cafe could talk, I bet that they would have many good laughs to pass on, stories to relive, and pleasing comments about the smells of the homestyle delectables prepared daily by the smiling lady behind the counter.
For Marlene Klein, owner of Ruth's Cafe for the past 18 years, running the establishment has been a continuation of the work her mom (the original Ruth) started back in 1959.
Very little has changed in the 46 years since the restaurant first opened its doors. Located in downtown Remsen, the dimly lit diner serves up seating at tables and at booths as well as a large lunch counter with stools.
Klein acknowledges the original booths have been replaced with newer models. But pretty much everything else remains the same. A light blue cabinet runs along the wall behind the counter and the cafe's distinctive wood paneling lines the wall gives Ruth's a slightly bucolic feel.
Near the entrance, people put farm auction ads and other pertinent information related to the small farming community. Occasionally you'll see a picture or piece of art but when you come to Ruth's, you're not thinking about interior decorating, You thinking about the people. And the delicious home cooked food.
The cafe, open daily from 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., specializes in breakfast and lunch specials.
"We've had two specials a day plus a regular menu for as long as I can remember," says Klein. "Thursdays are fried chicken day and that's probably our most popular item."
On the day I was there, patrons had a choice between hamburger and noodles or hamburger steak and a choice between green beans or pea salad.
I chose the hamburger steak with green beans and was pleasantly surprised by the generous portions of both. Add freshly peeled mashed potatoes, thick beef gravy, bread, and a piece of homemade cake, all for under $5, one quickly sees why Ruth's is such a hit.
It's the atmosphere that has made her family business last as long as it has, Klein explains.
"It's the small town atmosphere," she says. "If we weren't here, I think Remsen would survive just fine. But it would certainly be different. Small businesses come and go every day, so Remsen wouldn't die."
She may be right but there are a handful of waitresses who love what they do and are passionate about Ruth's. "We've always had good, hard working waitresses," Klein says.
One of those hard-working waitresses is Marge Gengler, a four-year veteran of Ruth's. "I like the people. It's a great place to work," she explains. "My husband passed away and I just had to get out of the house. This is great!"
Gengler appreciates the small town aspect of Remsen.
"In Remsen, you know just about everyone in town," she says.
One of the perks of Gengler's job is being able to know what happening around the community. "I walk up and down these aisles and talk to the people who I know."
One of the people you might find her talking to is Marvin Thiel. Thiel's brother was married to Ruth Thiel, the original owner of the restaurant.
He comes in twice a day. once for breakfast and once for dinner.
"I don't do much cooking at home," Thiel says. "Everybody knows your name and you always feel welcome here."
With any luck, the walls of Ruth's Cafe will have many, many more years of memories to collect as long as the friendly atmosphere, homemade food, and welcoming people are still present.