The business of breakfast
Eastern Iowa diners serve pancakes, eggs with helping of neighborhood cheer
Kristi Sherzer greeted customers with a big smile on a recent Thursday as she bustled around the small dining room of American Skillet, a restaurant on Cedar Rapids’s northwest side, carrying plates of biscuits and gravy, eggs and pancakes.
Sherzer has been waitressing there for 16 years, and said she knows some of her regular breakfast patrons so well they exchange birthday and Christmas gifts.
“I originally took the job because I had young kids, and the hours worked for me really well. Over the years, I guess I just got real close to some of the customers,” she said. “They treat me well, and I try to treat them well.”
That is key in the business of breakfast, American Skillet owner Tony Kassouf said. He also owns dinner eatery Cibo Fusion in Marion and said he sees a big difference in how customers want to interact with staff at his two restaurants.
“You’ve got to focus on the client a little bit more, be a little bit more personable (at breakfast),” he said. “They come in and want to be treated as if it’s their kitchen, their house. We have people who come in five days a week.”
Kassouf opened the restaurant with his mother, Lidia, in 1994. Breakfast is in his blood — his grandparents owned the Breakfast House, another diner on the southwest side that remains open under Kassouf’s uncle George Daoud’s ownership. Kassouf recalls going down to help out on the weekend when he was a teenager.
He compared a neighborhood breakfast diner to a neighborhood bar — people don’t just come in for the coffee, he said, they come in for social interactions.
Lois Ely, 80, of Cedar Rapids, agreed. She lives just down the street, close enough that when the weather is good she sometimes walks. She brought her friends Jo Logan, 84, of Fairfax and Julie Emmert, 69, of Marion, Ill., to eat there last month. She said she has been eating at American Skillet practically since it opened and comes in a few times a month.
“It’s very neighborly,” Ely said. “I come over here and see all my neighbors that I haven’t seen in a while.”
At another popular Corridor breakfast business, Bluebird Diner in Iowa City and Bluebird Cafe in North Liberty, owner Jon Wilson said watching customers return over the years is his favorite part of the job.
“I think of several young couples who we’ve seen become pregnant, give birth, and now their children are going to school. You see people’s kids grow up,” he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, he mourns when customers die.
“They’re part of you every day and then they’re just not there anymore and, gosh, it leaves a hole,” he said. “You get to see these people, and they become part of your life every day, and you become part of theirs.”
The Iowa City location, co-owned with Hart Epstein, opened almost eight years ago, and the North Liberty location, co-owned with Lacey Meinie, opened four years ago.
Wilson said when he first opened, he didn’t picture Bluebird as primarily a breakfast place — they serve lunch and dinner as well. But it quickly became clear breakfast would be the bulk of the business.
“We’re certainly most busy before 1 p.m. There’s a lot of competition in the dinner hour, but there was pent-up demand in downtown Iowa City in the breakfast hours,” he said.
Longtime breakfast mainstay Hamburg Inn No. 2 is around the corner. But Wilson said there is enough business to go around, and both places will have waiting lists on weekend mornings.
“We get a lot of people who start their day with us,” he said. “What’s more comforting than pancakes for breakfast? It’s children, parents, grandparents. Sometimes I see people in one location one day and at the other location the next.”
At Salt Fork Kitchen in Solon, co-owner Jay Schworn agreed serving the neighborhood is key to making the business work.
Salt Fork is a destination restaurant on the weekends he said, with people driving from Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, North Liberty and surrounding small towns. But without a strong core of neighborhood regulars — one couple sometimes comes in twice a day — it would fail.
“I’d be lying if I said Wednesdays in February weren’t a struggle. But we have a very good, loyal, local following which is the backbone of our weekday breakfast and lunch business,” he said. “When it’s negative 20 degrees on a February morning, we still have to come down and turn that light on and turn up the heat.
“Those one or two or three people who show up and get a hot cup of coffee and biscuits and gravy — you’ve just made their day.”
Schworn and Eric Menzel opened Salt Fork Kitchen three years ago as a partner business for their small farm in rural Solon. With polished wood floors and a farm-to-table focus, Salt Fork at first glance appears to be a world away from American Skillet’s comfortably faded beige carpet and menu that has remained much the same for two decades.
But Schworn said trendiness and the “eat local” mantra is not what makes his business work.
“I don’t need to praise myself for what I should be doing anyway,” he said.
Rather, he relies on a strong staff of about 10 employees.
“Breakfast is fast, and people need to be shiny and happy because you’re starting somebody’s day off,” he said.
Also key? A solid working knowledge of eggs.
“Eggs are important. There are many ways to cook an egg, and everybody likes them the way they like them, and you need to be able to execute that when there are 75 people in the restaurant with 30 people on a waitlist,” he said.
“If you don’t have a skilled person cooking eggs, you may as well say goodbye.”
IF YOU GO
— Address: 4820 Johnson Ave. NW, Cedar Rapids
— Phone: (319) 390-0017
— Website: americanskillet.com
Bluebird Diner and Bluebird Cafe
— Address: 330 E. Market St., Iowa City, 650 W. Cherry St., Suite 9, North Liberty
— Phone: (319) 351-1470 in Iowa City, (319) 626-2603 in North Liberty
— Website: bluebirdcafenl.com
Salt Fork Kitchen
— Address: 112 E. Main St., Solon
— Phone: (319) 624-2081
— Website: saltforkkitchen.com