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Better food, homey decor draw customers to mom and pop restaurants

RICHWOOD — Most West Virginians know well the flavors and comfort of a home-cooked meal. Now, it seems, the rest of the nation is catching on.

So much so that a new trend in the way Americans eat out has caught the attention of national media outlets like Forbes and Bloomberg.

Forbes contributor Carol Tice, in her piece “Mom and Pop Restaurants Can Compete with the Big Chains,” wrote in 2012, “Mom-and-pops are far from dead — seven of every ten restaurants are still one-unit eateries.”

Tice cited better food, personal service, homey decor and leisurely atmosphere as the four qualities many diners are seeking.

Fast-forward five years, when a headline by Bloomberg food writer Leslie Patten suggests an even more dramatic shift: “Mom-and-pop joints are trouncing America’s big restaurant chains.”

Patten writes, “Americans are rejecting the consistency of national restaurant chains.” Instead, customers are flocking to privately owned establishments “with their daily specials and Mom’s watercolors decorating the walls.”

Three eateries in Richwood are bearing out this trend: families are running away from Ronald McDonald and straight into the arms of Mom and Pop.

Stacy and Lance

At Whistle Punk Grill & Taphouse on Main Street, Stacy and Lance Raffo seem to have tapped into that trend. Local art hangs on the walls. Sandwiches are named for local icons, like The Nancy Hart and The Jim Comstock.

“We are also trying to develop a culture and family atmosphere,” said “mom” co-owner Stacy Raffo. Their teenage daughters, Quinn and Regan, pop in and out of the grill on their way to band practice or sitting down to work on homework.

The Raffos saw an opportunity to open the niche establishment when the partially renovated old bakery became available.

“It had so much potential. And with the expanded bike trail coming through Richwood, it was a great opportunity to get ahead of the momentum,” Stacy said.

The Raffos took a risk on a very high-end, eclectic menu that features organic, vegan and farm-to-table offerings. The Bloomberg piece says those tastes are fueling much of the small eatery growth.

Whistle Punk recently hosted a five-course, all local, farm-to-table dinner featuring tomato radicchio with a basil feta dressing, pork belly with pickled apples, basil lime pallet cleanser, poached peach torte and five different local wines.

Former Richwooder David Ward and partner Cecil Ybanez attended and posted on social media: “We live in Miami and an event like this would cost at least twice as much, but would be hard pressed to match the magic of this evening.”

Ward and Ybanez, who are quite the gourmands, also commented on the Whistle Punk’s shabby-chic decor: “The addition of the long, family style table adorned with beautiful, locally sourced flowers made it even more magical.”

But customers also want personal service, according to both Tice and Patten, and that comes from a happy staff. The Raffos recently took their dozen or so employees on a mule ride and picnic with local outdoor guides Cranberry Adventures.

“We genuinely care about our staff and want them to know they are a key part of our success.”

It shows.

Ward commended the staff, posting, “Service was excellent and everyone was so friendly. The chef and pastry chef created five courses using local ingredients, and it was simply amazing.”

Joy and Tommy

Patten observes that it’s more than the food. It’s the experience. “Customers are looking for a unique experience that they can post on Instagram. It’s not experiential to sit in a rundown McDonald’s.”

Joy Smith, owner of The Oakford Diner in Richwood, gets that. “I’ve seen customers take a picture of our pies or hot fudge cake and post them on their social media,” she said.

Joy and her husband, Tommy, bought the former C&S Restaurant with money from Tommy’s logging business. They did the all renovations themselves.

“It took us three years,” Joy explained. “We paid for it, as we had the money.”

The couple’s two girls, Emily and Elissa, helped.

The Oakford Diner is in every way a traditional American diner. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week from dawn to dusk.

Joy worked in fast-food and is keenly aware of how her diner is different.

“In fast-food, the goal is to get the food to the customer in two minutes. Everyone is a number,” she said. “Our diner is different. We have a wide variety of menu items and we treat our customers like family.”

She said when the local dentist walks in the door, they are already starting on his usual.

In The Oakford Diner, old photos of the town and memorabilia line the walls.

“People who remember when this was Prelaz’s love to come in and reminisce,” she said, “especially when class reunions are going on.”

She said couples have come in who had their first date here.

Joy is not worried about the competition from the other mom and pops. “We offer home cooking that caters to families, and our prices are affordable,” she said.

She sees a bustling town in Richwood’s future with these different eateries.

“We can all survive.”

Jessica and Noah

Hole in the Wall is another thriving mom and pop establishment in Richwood. Owned and operated by Noah and Jessica Carden, the young couple literally became a mom and pop as they were building their restaurant, which features wings, sandwiches and pizzas.

“Chelsie was born right after we opened in 2015,” Jessica explained. “And Milo came along right after we moved into our new location.”

Jessica and Noah dreamed of their own restaurant since they first married. Noah managed Cheat Mountain Pizza at Snowshoe, and Jessica helped open the Starbucks there. Opportunity knocked when the couple had to come home to help care for Noah’s grandmother after his father died.

“I guess we grew up then,” Jessica laughed.

In the midst of dealing with aging parents and a baby on the way, the Cardens had a chance to buy a pizza shop just yards away from the middle and high schools.

“We couldn’t believe how successful we were after the first year,” she said. “Then the flood came.”

Long story short, the Cardens have adjusted to challenge after challenge. With no help from FEMA or the SBA, the Cardens relied on profits from their business and loans to move to a new location on the city’s main drag.

“We still have a lot to do,” Jessica sighed. They want to improve the appearance of the building and build staff. They hope to offer beer and wine by spring.

Jessica thinks the locally owned mom and pop restaurants cater to different niches and complement each other. Whistle Punk, The Oakford Diner and Hole in the Wall are meeting the demands of a new breed of diners.

“We want all of us to succeed for the good of the town,” said Jessica.

Susan Matthis Johnson is a retired journalism teacher and writer from Richwood, West Virginia. From 2011 til 2016, she mentored Richwood HIgh School’s highly regarded PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Lab, the only one in West Virginia. Parts of this story were reprinted with permission from the Nicholas Chronicle. Contact Susan Johnson at myside@nicholaschronicle.com.

Funerals for Monday, June 17, 2019

Baker, Peggy - 11 a.m., Koontz Funeral Home, Hamlin.

Goff, Joyce - 1 p.m., Allen Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Kirby, Helen - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Kizer, Ernest - 1 p.m., Tyree Funeral Home, Mount Hope.

Leach, Robert - 5 p.m., Casdorph & Curry Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Sheets, Jonathan - 2 p.m., O’Dell Funeral Home, Montgomery.

Sturm, John - 11 a.m., Simpson Creek Baptist Church, Bridgeport.

Suttle, James - 2 p.m., Wallace & Wallace Chapel, Rainelle. ements.

Wood, E.C. - 1 p.m., Humphrey's Memorial United Methodist Church, Sissonville.

Woodall, Kennedy - 11 a.m., Forest Hills Cemetery, Flatrock.