Local Color: It's What's for Dinner

Fast-food franchises can't hold a candle to a good old-fashioned country café, with folks from the neighborhood and a menu like Mom's.

| September/October 2007

Looking for a side order of local news with your bacon and eggs? Then it’s time to saddle up and head for the local café.

Here’s where farmers, ranchers and neighbors meet for breakfast while they discuss global warming, cuss politicians, analyze commodities markets and debate the merits of the high school football team. It’s where farm families stop for lunch during a trip to town, where the hard-hat crowd fills up on comfort food, and where retired folks file in for the senior citizen’s special. And whether you call it a farmer’s café, a country café, or just “the café,” it’s the nerve center of small-town America.

You’ll find one in most small towns. The National Restaurant Association reports there are more than 935,000 restaurant locations in the United States. More than 300,000 of those are fast-food restaurants, while the Top 20 restaurant chains, including brands such as Applebee’s, Denny’s and Outback Steakhouse, account for about 14,000 locations nationwide. That leaves tens of thousands of locally owned, independently operated cafés in communities across the nation. Back Road Cafés of Texas, for example, lists more than 5,000 independent cafés and restaurants in Texas towns with populations of 30,000 or less.

My love affair with small-town cafés began when I was big enough to accompany my dad to the livestock sale barn, and afterwards to the local café for hamburgers and homemade pie. When I was 18, I impressed my future wife by taking her on a “grown-up” date to the Rainbow Café in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. While other teenagers were sharing colas and fries at the drive-in, we dined on chicken fried steaks.

Cafés are not restaurants

A country café is as different from a restaurant as a Hereford is from a Holstein. As a rule of thumb, cafés don’t provide tablecloths, don’t serve beer or liquor, and don’t take reservations. And cafés, unlike most full-service restaurants, almost always serve breakfast. Not just prefab breakfast sandwiches, but big platters of fried eggs, bacon and home fries. French toast and stacks of pancakes dripping with melted butter and maple syrup. Biscuits and gravy, and homemade cinnamon rolls the size of a platter. The conversation about trans fats has been slow arriving at country cafés.

A truck stop may include a café, but a café is not a truckstop. Cafés generally don’t sell diesel or have gift shops offering T-shirts, caps and fancy mud flaps, and few are open 24 hours a day. And while a café parking lot should be big enough to accommodate a pickup truck pulling a horse trailer, it’s seldom spacious enough for an 18-wheeler.

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