‘All things must come to an end’

By on June 5, 2019

Cloister Restaurant owners reflect on decision to close doors in August

A local landmark for nearly seven decades, The Cloister Restaurant, 607 W. Main Street, Ephrata, will close its doors August 31.

Mother and son owners Elva, 93, and Ron Stauffer say they are ready to move on to the next chapter of their lives.

First opened in 1952 as The Cloister Diner and taking its name from the historical site directly across the street, it’s the kind of place where you might hear conversations in both English and Pennsylvania Dutch-all at the same table.

During opening week, Ira E. Fasnacht would purchase the very first cup of coffee. The cost would be a donation of $5, which in today’s money, would would be nearly $50. While that seemed like a very expensive purchase at the time, the exchange also came with a stipulation. William Sebastian–who had recently opened the doors to the establishment–was asked to donate that money to the Ephrata Rec Center. Sebastian agreed, and in turn, matched Fasnacht’s amount.

In the beginning, the structure boasted a stainless steel exterior, the same look that’s often seen in classic-style diners. Sadly, these are also the same landmarks that are slowly disappearing across the country. It’s a dying piece of Americana, and one that is known for great atmosphere, waitresses with beehive hairstyles, and of course, outstanding food.

Elva and Ron Stauffer

Elva Stauffer would be the next owner, purchasing it in 1973. Her husband, Aaron, would also come along for the ride. Always having a dream to open a restaurant, Elva was raised on a farm in New Holland. By her teenage years, she already knew her way around a commercial kitchen.

“I ran a restaurant when I was 16 years old at my dad’s sale barn,” she said. “I always enjoyed that, and when this came up for sale, someone I knew said to buy it. I liked it, and that’s what got me turned on to it.”

The passion for serving up home-cooked meals would turn into a career for most of her life. Along the way, more employees were added; but cosmetically, only minor changes were needed to the interior over the years.

“We put all new booths in, and painted several times,” Elva said.

Her son Ron would manage after Aaron’s passing 20 years ago.

These days, Elva continues to be fully involved in the business, but rarely cooks. Instead, she keeps busy by showing customers to their seats or by menu planning.

“I let them do most of it,” she said of the kitchen staff who handles the cooking these days. “I have two Mennonite girls, and they’re here six days a week. They’re pretty good at it.”

While they do serve familiar, everyday fare, the 150-seat eatery was best known for their PA Dutch-style delicacies like scrapple, chicken pot-pie, and pig’s stomach.

Corn pie continues to be the hands-down favorite, especially during the summer.

“I usually do about 500 pies,” Elva said proudly.

And when she wasn’t busy serving guests, she also somehow found time to volunteer with the Ephrata Community Ambulance Association, a position she held for 26 years.

“I could run right across the street,” she joked.

When asked what the biggest change in the business the owners have seen during their tenure, the pair quickly points to the countless choices now available to the consumer.

“There’s a lot more competition,” Ron said. “Places like fast food and chains. Over the years, customers liked the Dutch cooking,” he added. “The younger ones don’t know what Dutch cooking is. Everything’s changing.”

Despite this shift, the business would catch the attention of several celebrities. The late Red Skelton would visit in 1978. After the famous comedian was recognized by a waitress, he found himself signing autographs for lucky customers. Former Major League Baseball player Darryl Strawberry would also sample the unique cuisine while stopping through the area in 2015. Then there was Gary Burghoff, who played the character of Radar on the hit television show M.A.S.H. He would visit in 2001.

And being near The Ephrata Cloister also brought in many tourists from around the world.

“We got a lot from the tourist industry,” Ron said. “We had people here from The Netherlands, Canada, and really every country imaginable.”

But despite the countless patrons over the years, it’s the regulars that will leave the greatest impact on the owners.

One such person is Dory Plowfield of Ephrata.

Elva and Aaron Stauffer pose with legendary comedian Red Skelton (middle) in this 1978 file photo.

You might say she’s the textbook example of a loyal customer.

“Every day for a year,” Plowfield said proudly, when asked how often she eats there. She admitted that her favorite meal was beef heart and filling. Shnitz un knepp (ham with dried apples and dumplings to the non-PA Dutch) is a close second.

Plowfield admits that right now, she doesn’t know where she’ll go for her PA Dutch meals in the fall.

“I’ll miss everything,” she said. “I can’t believe they’re closing. There’s no food in the area like this. This is home cooking.”

“I enjoyed doing it all, but all things must come to an end, Elva said. “I thank them all for coming in here.”

“I’m not gonna retire; I just want to do something different,” Ron added. “I golf alot.”

“But that doesn’t pay too much,” Elva quipped.

It’s that precise banter, all served up “family style,” that the Cloister Restaurant was known for across several generations.

It’s also one of the many things that will be greatly missed when the doors close in August.

Cory Van Brookhoven is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your comments at cvanbrookhoven@lnpnews.com or 717-721-4423.

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