More than a diner, these are the places Portage County comes together

Jake's Eats in Mantua, Ohio. Wendy DiAlesandro/The Portager

It’s early morning dark outside Deerfield’s Circle Restaurant, where Mark Bann and Ed Dean are enjoying their morning meal.

It’s a daily routine for the men and has been for years. No orders needed: the waitresses already seem to know what each person wants. A steaming cup of coffee is already on the counter when Bann walks in, and he’s been known to help prep the dining room tables if the waitresses seem stretched for time.

“You get to know the people and you get to know the workers, and it’s a way to support the local business,” Bann said. “If this place wasn’t here, it would be very disappointing, and a big loss to the community.”

In a business climate dominated by national and even international chains, people all around Portage County still appreciate local, independently owned diners. From Mantua to Deerfield, and Brimfield to Garrettsville, timeless restaurants offer something more like community than commerce.

Bann and Dean got a taste of what it’s like to lose the community glue of a good diner when the Circle Restaurant, established in 1984, burned in 2017. When the Circle closed for months of repairs, regulars were more concerned about the restaurant’s employees than they were about the loss of their morning routine.

“Everyone got together, and we had a fundraiser, and we raised about $10,000,” Bann said. “All of that went to the employees. You wouldn’t find that anywhere else.”

But in Portage County, you just might.

At Brimfield Family Restaurant, Tommy Lantz and Rick Scheel were finishing their breakfast.

“There’s charitable deeds and good deeds. You’ll have a conversation with someone, and find out there’s a need, and you do something about it,” Scheel said, remembering a fellow patron who needed a lawnmower… which somehow appeared.

“I need money,” a man from a nearby table piped.

“I’ll give you some advice,” Scheel shot back, not missing a beat. 

Caring cuts both ways, it seems. After Deerfield resident Barabara J. Sell Girscht died on Oct. 25, Circle Restaurant owner Dale Perez hosted a funeral dinner. He scheduled it for a Tuesday afternoon, when the restaurant is normally closed, never blinking at the expense or time.

“That’s something you wouldn’t see other than at a local place,” Dean said.

Patrons at each diner emphasized the sense of community they insist cannot be found at chain restaurants. Bann is at the Circle Restaurant four afternoons a week. Coffee, dinner: It’s a second home.

“We get to know people in the families, who’s sick or having a baby,” Dean said. “It’s amazing how much you find out about someone just by coming here, even if you don’t talk to them.”

New faces quickly become acquaintances and then friends, Dean said. And what do friends do but help each other?

“You can always find someone local who’s able to do whatever you need done,” Bann said.

He noted an elderly couple making their way to a nearby table. Though he did not speak to them, he knew both are in their 90s and come to the Circle Restaurant every morning.

“When they’re not here, we worry,” he said.

It’s the same at the Brimfield Family Restaurant. Retirees Janet and John, who asked not to publish their last names, said that if they miss their Monday morning “appointment” at the Brimfield Family Restaurant, fellow regulars want to know if they’re OK.

“It’s genuine concern,” Janet said. “That’s what keeps us coming.”

Cook Deborah Galleher has taken a liking to the couple, and sometimes brings them cookies she’s baked at home. Waitresses take time to visit before speeding off to other tasks or tables.

“It makes you feel special,” Janet said. “Brimfield is growing and changing, but this is the one place that never changes. It’s nice to walk into a place where people know you.”

No matter the restaurant, it’s impossible to be a stranger for long. Regulars welcome newcomers, and end up talking from table to table across the room.

“We’ve not had anything thrown at us yet,” Scheel laughed.

Scheel said he looks forward to hearing about local people, and events — items too small to make the news, but of huge importance to people who truly live local.

Those bits of local gossip have a serious side. The Brimfield Family Restaurant holds weekly fundraisers to help community members struggling to afford medication, bills and other daily needs.

Over at Bob’s Pizza in Randolph, Doug White said he simply enjoys the food and companionship.

The restaurant is a far cry from its first incarnation, when Randolph resident Bob Miller started selling pizza and pop out of his kitchen on March 4, 1971. He never imagined that a decade later he’d expand Bob’s Pizza to a full-service, all-day diner on state Route 44, just across from Sarchione Chevrolet.

Bob’s son Brad Miller, already an employee, took over in 1988 and bought the business when his dad retired in 1992. He can’t count the number of kids he’s hired, doing his best to teach them how to be solid employees: a skill they will need no matter where they work.

Like patrons at the other diners, White hesitated to imagine a world without Bob’s.

“I’d miss coming here,” he said. “We’ve known each other for 20 years.”

Tim Staron of Brimfield knows what it’s like to lose a local diner. When the Kentwood Restaurant in Franklin Township closed in 2016, the group that had gathered there on an almost daily basis scattered. Some have stayed in touch, occasionally meeting at other area eateries, but most have gone what could be called AWOL.

“What does an accountant, cobbler, violinist, landscaper, linesman and more have in common?” Staron asked, then answered his own question: “The Kentwood. People of all walks of life and opinions got to know each other and have a good time together. Almost all of us didn’t know each other prior to the Kentwood.”

Likening the restaurant’s atmosphere to the old sitcom “Cheers,” Staron said he misses watching Jeopardy, competing with others to see who could answer the most questions and laughing at the answers some folks shouted out. The tight-knit group also was a source for recommendations.

“You can make a lot of connections while you’re having a beer. Before Facebook it was actually in face,” he said.

That’s still the case at Rootstown’s Firehouse Grille & Pub where bartender Analiese Baglia (daughter of owner Chuck Baglia) said she frequently fields requests for people who can do construction, concrete, power washing, auto body work or just about anything else.

She usually knows a restaurant regular who can do what’s needed and passes on a name and phone number. Everybody wins: One gets a paying job, and the other gets high-quality service from someone who knows their local reputation is on the line.

Keeping an eye on everything at the Firehouse is regular Howie Shankel, who has all but an assigned seat at the bar. He’s there at 2 p.m. every day even though he moved from Rootstown to Randolph 20 years ago.

“It’s the people,” he said. “They’re like family. I know who’s going to be here. It’s not like walking into a place with strangers.”

Across the county, restaurant owners, employees and regulars echoed Shankel’s words.

Manager Nikki Malcolm, who arrived at Bob’s as a part-time employee 10 years ago, never expected to stay a decade. Now that she has, there’s no thought of leaving. She enjoys watching families grow and shares in sorrow when a regular passes away.

“It’s like a small family,” she said. “The same people come in every day. It’s a wonderful place to work.”

Like the other restaurateurs, Tom Serle, co-owner of the Brimfield Family Restaurant with Bernie Noble, sees his role as facilitating a community gathering place. He and Noble have owned the restaurant since 2015, but it’s been a community mainstay since the 1970s.

Serle said he and Noble have focused on people, product and process: hiring good employees and treating them well, choosing quality ingredients and giving all his employees the tools to do their jobs well. Seems to work as the customers keep returning.

Serle expressed the deep gratitude each owner expressed.

“Thank you for choosing to come to our place to have a meal,” he’d like to tell each customer. “We know you have many choices, and we appreciate you choosing us.”

Chuck Baglia, who has run Rootstown’s Firehouse Grille and Pub for 26 years, quickly deflected credit for having created a community institution, attributing that to his customers. He is particularly grateful to the loyal customers who ordered carryout during the Covid crisis. Without them, he said, the restaurant may well have gone under.

“I owe everything to my customers,” he said. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be here. I love this community. I love this town. I’ve lived in other areas and Rootstown has always brought me back.”

Northern Portage County has a few regular haunts, too.

Jake’s Eats in Mantua is a Prospect Street restaurant that more than once almost wasn’t. Owners Jodie Fiala (a Portager board member and niece of Kent’s iconic Mayor Jerry Fiala) and experienced restaurateur Kim Sumwalt knew they needed a change. Fiala wanted to move from Kent to her hometown of Mantua, and Sumwalt had closed The Other Place, which formerly was housed in Kent’s University Inn.

On what Fiala terms “a whim,” they bought a recently foreclosed restaurant on state Route 44 in the heart of Mantua and opened at 5 a.m. on Black Friday 2009. A blizzard raged outside, but somehow the pair stayed open, even serving a fish fry dinner that night. Their plan to open for lunch and dinner lasted exactly one week until they added breakfast hours.

Jake’s Eats stands for something. Literally. Jodie and Kim’s Eats, Fiala said.

The restaurant was almost short lived. Five years after opening Jake’s, the pair sold it so they could open Jake’s Market, just around the corner on state Route 44. The Market still exists, and Fiala and Sumwalt still own it. However, the new restaurant owners were unsuccessful, so the women bought it back in January 2017.

Describing herself and her partner as “big fish in a little pond,” Fiala said they are pleased to provide a community gathering place.

Liz Suffecool, a server at Jake’s, knows Fiala’s words are no exaggeration. She met her “birthday twin” at Jake’s, and watched as countless community members brought in gifts for Fiala’s birthday. It wouldn’t happen at a chain venue, she said.

“Mom and pop shops are much better,” she said. “You’re working for someone who’s working hard for you. I come here and I want to work harder for them. They want to see me succeed, and I want to see them succeed.”

The ROMEO’s (Retired Old Men Eating Out) also call Jake’s home. Anywhere from 12-22 of them meet many mornings, solving the world’s problems over eggs and coffee. They wander their separate ways, and other regulars, such as Ross and Heather Plott of Garrettsville, take their places.

They choose independent diners as often as they can because, as Heather said, “local business owners are trying to feed and support their families.”

Menus at chains rarely vary, so Ross particularly enjoys Jake’s offerings.

“I had no idea I’d be having pork chops tonight,” he grinned.

Then there’s the home of the Freddyburger. Garrettsville’s The Brick first opened on South Street in 1939. Frank Zupancic owned it, and then the history gets fuzzy. Current owner Dan Reichelderfer’s father Fred bought the restaurant in 1959, and moved it to Windham Street, just outside of the downtown strip, in 1979.

Dan started his tenure at The Brick in 1984, and took over ownership when his father passed away in 2005. From his post behind the bar, he glanced at some customers. They come in every week, he said, “even when it’s 40 below.”

“It’s neat that you can see generation after generation after generation,” he said. “I saw some people the other day, that they’re the fourth generation that I know of coming here.”

“It’s a gathering place,” said Garrettsville residents Jeff and Phyllis Miller. “We all like to have someplace to go, and it’s fun to see people you know. We like to keep stuff in our little town.”

Doreen and Vic Sutton of Champion have been meeting their friends from Garrettsville, Trumbull and Rootstown at The Brick for decades. It’s a central location, more or less, they said.

“We feel comfortable here. There’s never any rowdiness in here. If there was, they’d get tossed out,” Vic said, gesturing at Reichelderfer, whose size could easily fill a standard doorway.

Sharon Barber, seated with her husband Rich, said The Brick is their “go-to” diner.

“When we have friends come from out of state, this is where we go,” she stated.

No higher compliment can be bestowed.

Reporter’s Note: The restaurants highlighted in this article are by no means an exhaustive list. The intent was to focus on a few eateries, discover what makes them tick, and explore their importance in the various communities.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of Dan Reichelderfer’s father.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.