As you first walk into Modoc Diner in Modoc, Indiana, you are greeted by a sign that reads, “Welcome to Modoc Diner, make yourself at home.” Owners Teena and Jack Pemberton live by that motto.
“I sometimes wonder if folks come here more to eat or catch up with friends and relatives,” Teena laughs.
Now, me being a Michigander and not a “local,” I can safely say that folks come for both reasons. I daresay that anyone that stops by becomes part of the “family.” In so many ways this is typical of small town diners, but here at Modoc, it goes a bit further.
Modoc Restaurant is located right smack dab in the middle of, well… nowhere in particular. Teena is sincere when she says, “We need this for our community. There are not too many places for the farmers and locals to go in this neck of the woods. We love the people and we love the town.”
It’s pretty evident that the people love them back. She has the diner decorated in pure country with lots of roosters. All the decorations are personal. There is a big chicken in the front window that was bought by a customer, a painted tree on one wall that is adorned with pictures of birds taken by another customer and an array of other items scattered throughout that were donated. “I knew filling the wall space wouldn’t be a problem and it hasn’t. So many folks want to be a part of this and they have brought us so many things, telling us that they just wanted us to have it… just because.”
She has a solid belief that good quality food and service is what makes or breaks a restaurant and they capitalize on both. Doesn’t matter what you order, you can tell at first bite that most everything is homemade. The coleslaw and other salads are her own recipes as are the pies and cheesecakes… and mashed potatoes are never from instant. Everything is made fresh, right down to bacon at breakfast. “I don’t want something that has been kept warm for a couple hours and I know my customers don’t either.”
“I’d rather have it that way,” she confesses. We don’t re-heat anything because food just isn’t as good the second time around. I pretty much know my supply and demand and if we do have a little left over, it goes home with the help.”
Jack beams at that comment, “Or sometimes it goes home with me!”
Her staff of five are like her family. She has two main waitresses, two cooks and one busboy while Jack tends the register and she fills in wherever needed.
Even though this diner is her baby, the restaurant business has always been in her blood. Her mother owned two restaurants in Michigan where Teena cooked and waited tables. When she married Jack and moved to Indiana she left the kitchen behind but you can’t take the kitchen out of the girl. There was a restaurant not far from Modoc called “The Homestead” that was already closed and boarded up and every time they went by it her heart ached to be a part of the business again. “I kept asking Jack if he would buy it for me.”
“I did make an offer to the owner and she kept counter-offering. So, we just put it in the back of our minds until one day I told the owner that I had made her an offer and that was final. In a few days she said she would sell and we had a restaurant and named it the ‘Blue Moon,'” Jack recalled.
It took them a few months to get everything in order and it soon became a family affair when their four kids got on board with the idea. Their daughter Jenny designed the main décor using a couple yellow walls to bring out the yellow in the chickens and incorporate it into the white with red and white check theme; son Jack Jr. helped with the floors; son Tom did the wiring and son Joe helped with a little bit of everything and also by donating some items.
Jack smiles as he shows me their military wall, “We are really proud of this. It’s a tribute to all in the military. We started putting our grandson’s picture up there and some customers have added their relatives too.”
There are other things that make this place dear to their hearts. Much of the restaurant equipment is Teena’s mother’s, including the grill. “It’s a piece of my childhood that is part of this,” she admits.
But the bottom line is it’s all about feeling at home, right down to the fireplace that warms hearts as well as bodies. They have been asked to open a couple franchises in nearby towns but that would lose the homey atmosphere. Jack and Teena both smile as a patron hugs them on her way out. “That’s why we are here, it’s all about the folks.”
Photos property of Lois Hoffman.