“Virgil and Noma”
If you had a set of scales that could hold all the potatoes Virgil Gabel has peeled by hand for the Ozark Cafe’s plate lunches over the past 35 years, it would take about a thousand 180-pound men, or 91 tons, to balance the other side. And if you lined up all the pies baked by his wife, Noma, in the tiny cafe oven over the same period of time, they would stretch from West Plains to Willow Springs!
No, the Gabels weren’t trying for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. They were just regular folks making a living. But running even a small business, going through the same routine, day after day, can require hard work and perseverance of heroic dimensions.
Visitors to West Plains often are surprised to discover old-fashioned diners serving home-style food, in addition to the old style soda fountains at Wilke’s and at the Anderson-Carte Dress Shop downtown. Mom and Pop diners are part of the American mythos, the “lost” Main Street U.S.A. of the 1930s and 1940s. Who would believe these things still live on in an era dominated by drive-in restaurants? But places like the Ozark Cafe, the Little Diner and the Two Way Cafe probably will exist as long as there are small towns like West Plains, for where else would people meet who work and shop in the downtown area? Need to discuss a business deal? Want to catch up on the news from a long-time-no-see friend? Need a place just to unwind? These are things that West Plains people do over a cup of coffee and a slab of Noma’s freshly baked pie. And who can guess the impact of all the gossip that has been exchanged – and overheard – in those back-to-back booths?
What is the special appeal of the 25 or so custard, meringue and fruit pies whose golden crusts beckon from the counter each morning? During the first hour of the lunch rush, two dozen pairs of eyes leer over to where the slices are disappearing at a fast pace. As the supply of favorite varieties start to dwindle, those who haven’t even finished their meals will ask to have “their” pieces set aside. Not to be outmaneuvered, the folks who don’t get off for lunch until later will be on the telephone, reserving their own. Virgil can be heard announcing to the other help, “Those two pieces of chocolate cream pie over there are already sold.”
Noma recalls, “We’ve sent several pies to St. Louis. Last weekend a salesman out of Springfield came by to take home his usual order of baked goods. There’s a lady in Illinois who will order a pie a week for seven weeks as a Father’s Day gift for her father in West Plains. People coming to town for a visit will call in their orders ahead. ”And over the years the pies have added up. One time someone showed Noma a newspaper clipping about another lady who claimed an “incredible” lifetime record of 30,000 pies. Asked if she could beat that, Noma quickly scribbled her own calculation: “Twenty- five pies times six days times 52 weeks times 35 years … Why, my own record is over 125,000!” And that doesn’t count the three dozen dinner rolls and six to 12 loaves of bread she has turned out every day, year after year.
What’s even more amazing is how she does it with the small bit of counter space back in the cafe’s kitchen. “It’s very difficult,” she admits, with no hint of complaint. “I usually make up enough dough at a time for two days. Someday I’d like to see a movie of myself doing it so I could see how to do it faster.” The most pies she’s put out in one day? — 113 for Christmas several years ago. “We’ve never wanted for enough business,” adds Virgil from behind the counter as he pares away at a stack of pie apples between orders. ‘The closest thing we ever had to a slump was just before the Korean War. This recession never hurt us. Our best advertising is our customers. And I never realized until recently how many people who travel through West Plains regularly make a special effort to get here for lunch.”
Still, with only 40 seats in the place, how can little cafes like this manage just by serving breakfasts and lunches? “We need to run full at least three times in one and a half to two hours,” says Noma, who has to play “social director” several times a day to keep the booths occupied. Whenever people come in the door, see all of the booths are taken and look like they’re about to go somewhere else, Noma is there in a flash to try to get them to share a booth that isn’t full. “I try to seat people together who know each other,” she says, which in a town where many people are already acquainted isn’t too difficult. All it takes is a little humor to overcome the initial hesitation: “Joe, wouldn’t you like to sit here with Martha? I won’t tell your wife.” At other times she will even introduce them. When people are finished with their meals and are inclined to dawdle over second cups of coffee, they may get a gentle “nudge” if more room is needed. Usually it’s sufficient for Noma or the helper to be there promptly with the check and to ask, “Can I get you anything else?”
The strong loyalty of the Gabels’ customers may stem from the way the Ozark Cafe at lunchtime resembles a large family eating in shifts in a farm kitchen. “We’ve served three generations,” Noma likes to point out. Even the hired help tend to develop a strong attachment to the place. “Someone who worked here 25 years ago will come by and say, “Don’t you remember me? I worked for you when I was in high school.”
Noma, a native of Ozark County, met Virgil when they were employed at an ammunition plant in St. Louis during World War II. After he got out of the service in 1946, they talked of moving to Rolla, near his hometown of Newburg. But there was no work available there at the time. Then they heard about this little sandwich shop on Washington Avenue in West Plains that was for sale. A cousin who was in the restaurant business told them anybody could do all right if his wife could start out helping with the cooking. “Well, I’ve been helping until he can find a cook for 35 years now,” Noma laughs.
“It’s also interesting to reflect on the way things have changed since then,” Virgil says. “I remember when a slice of pie was a dime and hamburgers were 15 cents. A plate lunch was 55 cents. How many years ago did we stop selling coffee for 5 cents? I think we were one of the last places in town to raise the price of coffee. ”There has been some remodeling, as space would permit. “We paneled over the old wallpaper and we re-did the windows. There used to be two big old tall doors, the kind with thumb latches, and the glass went down almost to floor level. I remember how people used to sit on the ledge outside.”
Noma describes meeting Virgil for the first time. – Interview July 16, 2014 – Trillium Trust / Unlock the Ozarks.
Noma describes how they first acquired the restaurant after the war. – Interview July 16, 2014 – Trillium Trust / Unlock the Ozarks.
Noma talks about how the famous menu of plate lunches and pies came to be. – Interview July 16, 2014 – Trillium Trust / Unlock the Ozarks.
Did you know?
- If you line up all the pies that Noma of Ozarks Café baked in their first 35 years, they would stretch from West Plains all the way to Willow Springs?
- That Ozarks Café received orders from Springfield, St. Louis, and even all the way from Illinois?
Funding for the Schoolcraft Journey project on Unlock the Ozarks has been provided by the Missouri Humanities Council.