Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Who Are the Dutch?




Remember that episode of Seinfeld that opens with Jerry and George in the coffee shop, and they both have mustaches? They have the following conversation:

George: What is Holland?

Jerry: What do you mean, 'what is it?' It's a country right next to Belgium.

George: No, that's the Netherlands.

Jerry: Holland is the Netherlands.

George: Then who are the Dutch?

“Who are the Dutch?” It’s a question I set out to answer without visiting the Netherlands. How could I even think of travelling to another country when I’d be leaving behind so many undiscovered broken chains in America? Instead, I traveled to the Dutchest place I could think of that fit the Broken Chains theme, one of the three surviving locations of the Dutch Pantry restaurant chain that once boasted highway-adjacent restaurants all over the eastern United States.

Nothing is more Dutch than the American flag. 
The original Dutch Pantry was opened by mother and son Lottie and Jess Kemberling in Snelinsgrove, Pennsylvania in 1945. Dutch Pantry’s business model of catering to highway travelers and expanding via franchising was a common one in the years after World War Two thanks to a strong economy and expanding highway systems. Dutch Pantry found success in the fifties and sixties as did many similar chains, and like it’s competitors, Howard Johnson’s, Stuckey’s, Horne’s, and Nickerson Farms used eye-catching architecture to attract customers. Typical locations had red and white striped enamel tile roofs, prominent cupolas, and signage adorned with windmills and tulips. As the economy slowed, and locations began to close, the brand’s survival became increasingly dependent on their largest corporate franchisee, Sohio Oil subsidiary Hospitality Motor Inns, who operated Dutch Pantry restaurants near their motels. Shortly after becoming a publicly traded company in the early seventies, Hospitality Motor Inns was acquired by notoriously unscrupulous and generally unpleasant hoteliers Harry and Leona Helmsley who leased the restaurants to a corporate entity known as Rains International who, in turn managed day to day operations at each location. The Helmsleys and Rains allowed their Dutch Pantry restaurants, the bulk of the chain by that point, to languish, limping their way into the eighties. When Rains failed to pay rent on the 35 or so restaurants they ran, they were evicted, effectively killing the chain. However, somehow, despite all odds, three Dutch Pantries, all of which were owned by Hospitality Motor Inns, and later the Helmsleys, managed to survive. The Williamstown, West Virginia Dutch Pantry along with its counterparts in Clearfield and DuBois, Pennsylvania somehow managed to survive the Rains International evictions and remain in business to this day.

The $3.95 special was liver and onions, kind of a bait and switch, unless you happen to like liver. 

Like so many who had entered the Williamstown Dutch Pantry in the past several decades, I was a road-weary traveler. I came in for an early dinner after a long day on the road, having driven south from my home in Southeast Michigan so to South Charleston, West Virginia, so I could revisit Suzi’s, a Burger Chef holdout, only to turn back to the north so I could dine at both Dutch Pantry and later, the nearby Omelet Shoppe in Parkersburg. Thanks to a mixup with my Airbnb host, I wasn’t able to check in to my accomodations for the evening until later that night, so the nap I was planning on taking before dinner didn’t come to fruition. It was going to take a good meal and a charmingly obsolete atmosphere to lift my spirits, even if I did have a Big Shef for lunch earlier that day. 

Aside from the modern roof, the building is as it was when new. 

The Dutch Pantry in Williamstown is right next to I-77 at the final West Virginia exit before the highway crosses the river into Ohio. While quite visible from the interstate overpass, thanks to a still vibrant roof and tall sign, the restaurant is nearly invisible once you exit. Only a small antique sign hints at the restaurant’s presence, tucked behind a 1990s-era Go Mart convenience store. The building looks much like it would have when new. Though its enamel tile roof has been replaced with a modern metal one, it’s still bright red. The building’s remaining trim and exterior decorative elements appear original and nicely preserved. Immediately to the rear of the restaurant is the motel that was once a Hospitality Motor Inn, now showing its age a bit, and changing ownership so often that Google Maps isn’t sure what it’s calling itself this week. In retrospect, I probably should have stayed there rather than in an Airbnb. It would have made for a nice companion piece to the post I wrote about spending the night in a sketchy EconoLodge that was once an orange roof-era Howard Johnson’s. 

Upon entering the restaurant, I admired the original round lunch counter to my right so intently that I neglected to take a picture of it. Various trinkets and a few prepared foods were for sale at the shelves near the door. It’s all pretty similar to the merchandise you’d find in the country store half of the average Cracker Barrel, but there are some jars of local apple butter and other spreads that look interesting. A hostess appears from the kitchen and shows me to a table at the opposite end of the restaurant. (The gift shop area separates the lunch counter area from the main dining room.)

Main dining area

All this stuff is for sale. 






















The dining room felt old, but well-maintained. Much of the rustic decor on the walls was for sale, with a price tag hanging on each item. As I studied the delightfully anachronistic menu, it dawned on me that after my long day on the road, I was in the mood for a big pile of comfort food. The menu didn’t disappoint, offering a wide selection of gravy-soaked proteins, most of which, including the meatloaf I ordered, were curiously served on a bed of stuffing. My food came out quickly and was hot. I imagine they have a few meatloaves in the oven and in warmers most of the day. Still, it tasted reasonably fresh, and the flavors worked well with the stuffing underneath. The mashed potatoes were made from actual spuds, not freeze dried flakes, and the coleslaw was nondescript, but not objectionable. 


Meatloaf dinner; Note the layer of stuffing. 

"Putting pictures of the desserts on the place mats is sure to increase sales, or my name's not Dick Whitman... whoops."

As I ate, I admired the paper place mats on the table that also serves as dessert menus. They looked like they had been printed fifty years ago, and I pictured a stockpile of boxes holding hundreds of untouched reams of half century old place mats hiding out in some back room of the Dutch Pantry. The brilliant marketing strategy of featuring desserts prominently, no doubt formulated by some day-drunk Don Draper type, worked on me, and when it came time to order dessert, I asked for apple fritters. 


The famous apple fritters, worth stopping for even if you don't have a bizarre interest in near defunct restaurant chains. 

If Dutch Pantry had a signature menu item, it was probably the apple fritters. Just about every news article and forum post I could find about Dutch Pantry mentioned them by name. When the fritters were dropped off at my table, they more than lived up to the hype. The fritters, basically three large doughnut holes, were fresh cooked, right out of the fryer, and inundated with powdered sugar. They had perfect cake doughnut texture, crispy on the outside and soft in the inside with a wonderful cinnamon flavor, and bits of apple throughout. To hell with your pumpkin spice latte. Dutch Pantry apple fritters are the real flavor of fall. I’ll order a dozen to go on my next Dutch Pantry visit. 

So who are the Dutch? I’m afraid that Costanzian conundrum persists after my visit to Dutch Pantry. It turns out that despite the windmill and tulips on the sign by the road, Dutch Pantry is named for the Pennsylvania Dutch, who originated in Germany, not the Netherlands and are called Dutch because of some long forgotten English-speaker mishearing the word “Deustch.” Much of Dutch Pantry’s decor and architecture is inspired by the ornate barns constructed by Pennsylvania Dutch settlers and the cuisine is inspired by their Amish and Mennonite descendants. Even the name Dutch Pantry is meant to evoke the bountiful food supply that could supposedly be found in many Pennsylvania Dutch households. Maybe a trip to Amsterdam, New York, Holland, Michigan, or The Hague, New Mexico will clear things up, but for now, I have no idea who the Dutch are.

For a more informative, but decidedly less silly take on Dutch Pantry, plus pictures of the round lunch counter I failed to get a picture of, be sure to check out the Dutch Pantry page on highwayhost.org. 



4 comments:

  1. Thanks for clarifying at the end, that the PA Dutch are not Holland Dutch!
    I'm PA Dutch and I grew up with most of these foods.
    and, I remember the Dutch Pantry fondly because dad would stop there often when I was a kid and we were traveling

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    1. Your dad had good taste. I definitely enjoyed eating there beyond the novelty factor of it being a broken chain.

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  2. Beautiful write up as always.

    Also, Liver and Onions you say? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJel3nr6AY8

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    1. I can’t believe I made a blog post mentioning liver and onions without a reference to Chester Lampwick. Thanks for having my back.

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