Rural Missouri Magazine

Good pie, hot coffee, timeless talk
A half century of good food and
lively conversation at the Ozark Cafe

by Jeff Joiner

Noma starts her day with some breakfast before she unlocks the doors to the Ozark Cafe in West Plains and welcomes her breakfast customers.

Except for dim lights in the tiny kitchen, the restaurant is dark. Early morning light begins to filter through two plate-glass windows and silhouettes the reversed words, "Ozark Cafe" in large bold letters. Noma Gabel sits by herself in a booth in the back of the cafe sipping coffee much as she's done each morning for the past 55 years. In a few minutes she'll unlock the front door and open for business.

Noma sits beneath a large black and white, framed photograph of a young woman and a tall, dark-haired man, both smiling broadly. The couple stands in front of a building with plate glass windows with the words "Ozark Cafe" printed in large bold letters.

Noma says the snapshot was taken in 1950, four years after her husband bought the business on Washington Street just off the courthouse square in West Plains. Some customers got together and had the shot blown up for Noma and Virgil on the 50th anniversary of their ownership of the diner.

In May the Gabels passed 55 years and Noma says Virgil doesn't plan to close the cafe anytime soon.

"He promised me we'd get out of here at 50 years and then he said 52, then 55 and we passed that this month. "We are historic," she says with wry humor born of five decades of 10-hour days cooking, waiting on customers and baking pies, her specialty.

The sign with the day's lunch specials declares, "6,060 pies in 2000." She reminds people she wasn't able to bake many pies last December after she caught her mother's wedding ring in an industrial dough mixer, nearly tearing her finger off.

Noma made more than 6,000 pies in 2000.

After emergency surgery in Springfield and several weeks of recovery, Noma was back baking pies for a town that seemed to suffer withdrawal.

"While I was gone they baked cakes," Noma says "and people kept coming in and asking when I was going to be back."

Her one-day record was 162 pies one year on the day before Thanksgiving. That's when they used to take orders for pies but they stopped that.

Noma can't be sure, but someone once figured she's baked more than 300,000 pies in her lifetime. It's a point of pride for a woman who has taken only one vacation from the cafe in 55 years, a trip to Gary, Ind., and Chicago with her then 5-year-old daughter and brother. That was 33 years ago.

Just before 7 a.m. Virgil comes in and begins preparing the day's plate lunch specials. Noma unlocks the front door, flips on the lights and customers begin drifting in.

While Noma finishes baking pies and homemade bread and rolls Virgil waits on customers. Everyone knows the Gabels and the banter between Virgil and the cafe's regulars is well-rehearsed.

The lunch crowd gathers at the Ozark Cafe in West Plains. The restaurant has been open in the same spot off the Howell County Courthouse square for a half century.

"You want something?" Virgil asks.

"You know it," a man replies, taking a stool at the counter.

"What'll you have?"

"What've you got?"

"Biscuits and gravy, eggs over easy, two Mountain Dews. That right?" Virgil asks, repeating the breakfast the man orders nearly every day.

"That'll be right."

The simple reason Virgil and Noma have stayed in business for more than half a century is three generations of customers who are more than just customers. They're also friends, even if they're only vacationers who eat at the Ozark Cafe once or twice a year.

"We can go a hundred miles from here and run into people that know us," says Virgil. "That's a good feeling. That's what makes it kind of rough to quit."

When she gets a chance, Noma Gabel enjoys visiting with customers, many of whom are old friends.

Beulah Spencer, who waitressed for the Gabels for nearly 18 years, agrees.

"I enjoyed waiting tables most of the time. You'd get a few (customers) that were a pain in the neck. But mostly I enjoyed seeing the people."

"I've seen Beulah go stone deaf when she was a waitress." Noma says, laughing.

"You had to sometimes. 'Hey you, hey you, hey you. Where's my hamburger? Where's my soup?' Sometimes I just run my legs off."

The breakfast crowd comes and goes and even before the Gabels and head waitress Peggy Shelton can catch their breath people begin filing in and ordering lunch. Two couples walk to the back of the cafe and sit in the last booth which offers a view into the kitchen. Noma takes their order and as she walks to the kitchen a man in the booth tells her to hurry up.Noma doesn't flinch, replying, "This isn't an emergency room." The man, an old friend of the Gabels, laughs.

Noma and Virgil have watched a town grow up and a downtown business district decline in their 55 years in business.

In 1946, when the couple bought the cafe, the area around the Howell County Courthouse was the heart of West Plains' business community. Storefronts surrounding the courthouse were busy with shoppers and not one but several restaurants competed for the lunch crowd.

"We're the only restaurant like this left downtown," says Noma. "When we first came all the restaurants were downtown."

Virgil remembers a Saturday afternoon soon after World War II when someone held a drawing for a car on the courthouse lawn. By the time the drawing was held there were so many people in the street outside the cafe and so many inside that no one could get in or out of the restaurant. They served 700 people that day, Virgil says.

Early in the day the tiny kitchen gets a little crowded as Noma bakes the dayÕs homemade bread and Virgil fixes breakfast for a customer.

It's no secret to anyone that Noma is ready to retire. She says so herself, several times a day, and always within earshot of Virgil. "I nag him," she says, smiling.

"If you retired you wouldn't know what to do," a customer says, teasing Noma.

"Yes, I would," she replies. "I'd run the wheels off that little Corsica. I'd have to get one of those bumper stickers that says, 'This car stops at all garage sales!'"

It's also no secret that when the Gabels close, it will probably be the end of the Ozark Cafe. "No one wants to do this anymore. It's hard," Noma says.

But for now, at least, Noma and Virgil continue to serve up hot meals and delicious pies.

On this day Noma sold all of the 23 pies she baked. The cafe was busy. "The eagle flew early this month," Noma says referring to the arrival of Social Security checks which make up a big chunk of the income for many of the cafe's customers.

And how much will it set you back?

The lunch special of the day is salmonloaf, white beans with corn bread or homemade bread, mashed potatos, cole slaw and add to that a piece of pie and a cup of coffee and the damage comes to $3.68.

And there's probably no better meal served in town because it comes with a helping of local history and color.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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