When small towns shrink or disappear in rural America, homestyle, family restaurants feel the pinch, and they have often been replaced by chains like Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel or Bob Evans.
But that trend looks to be reversing. In 2016 Bob Evans, based in Ohio, sold 27 restaurants, and Bloomberg News has reported a resurgence in the popularity of mom and pop restaurants all over the country.
Beth White’s family run restaurant sits at a four way stop in a remote area in North Lewisburg. It’s only open three days a week and it doesn’t advertise, but if you stumble across this former log cabin in the country, you’ll find a cross section of rural america.
“We did have a dozen snowmobiles come up to the back door saturday night,” says owner Beth White, “ We used to take pictures of the vehicles that pulled in here, cause we had lawnmowers pulling in, we had jaguars, we had tractors, and then someone stopped by on horseback.”
Mom and Pop Diners bring to mind obscure, hole in the wall places with delicious food, which is a perfect description of Uncle Beth’s BBQ.
“My niece used to call me Uncle Beth when she was first learning to talk and it just kinda stuck,” White says about the unusual name, “ Then she passed away about nine years ago, she was in a car accident, so we kinda named it in her honor.”
White and her son run the business. She brags that they have the best staff in the nation - educated, intelligent, hardworking, show up every day. For the girls working the counter, the feeling is mutual.
“It is amazing, I love working with all my friends and it does get fast paced sometimes, so it keeps us busy and going everything,” says Ashlie Tinor, a small blonde serving up food from behind the line, “ It’s a really great feeling knowing that these people come back for the experience, and they really enjoy their experience here, and that’s how we get a lot of regular customers.”
Molly Dunham, her co-worker at the register agrees, “Yeah, a lot of people travel too. We have a lot of people that travel. Some come out of state. There’s this guy here last week came all the way from Delaware - family member he has actually lives in town here - Thursday, Friday, Saturday, he came every day. Thursday for our special, Friday for our prime rib, and he came back Saturday for the brisket.”
It’s pouring down rain outside on this thursday afternoon, but the place is still packed. White says that In the summertime they don’t have enough parking and people are parking down the road and lined up around the building, and this is really kind of a slow day.
Many of the customers here are from the Honda Plant in Marysville and it’s easy to pick them out from the crowd with their white uniforms. Honda is one of the largest employers in Ohio with over fourteen thousand workers. Ten percent of those live in this area of Champaign and Clark counties. Since they’re a main thoroughfare for Honda and there’s really nothing else in the area, a lot of times they’ll call in for a large party size order, enough for 30 or 40 people.
“So I think the reason why were popular is a lot of restaurants make food out of boxes and bags, we make everything from scratch,” says White looking around the packed dining room at her customers, “from collards, sweet potato casserole, and then our mac and cheese is the most popular, and that’s a recipe that my son’s girlfriend’s aunt gave them.”
Small, independent businesses like Uncle Beth’s do more than just feed the local community, it nurtures the sense of community that is the backbone of rural life.
White describes reflects on a recent customer whose brother-in-law was in hospice, “and he said, I really want to take him a turkey dinner. So I made four turkey dinners for him, gave him all the fixings like it was a thanksgiving dinner, cause we had the stuffing, we had cranberries, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, the whole nine yards. And I gave them to him and I said ‘this is my gift to you, and I want you to celebrate your brother-in-law’.”
“He came back two weeks later, and he said, ‘I got to tell ya, he said that was the best meal he ever had. And it was his last meal. He passed away the next day.’
“You know, it just makes your heart swell, because this is why we’re here.”