Elva’s beloved kitchen is closed

By on September 4, 2019

Bittersweet emotions all around on the Cloister Restaurant’s final day

Shortly after 8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31, Ron and Elva Stauffer turned off the lights and locked the doors of the Cloister Restaurant.

But it wasn’t just the end of a work day. It was the end of an era.

The Cloister Restaurant, initially called the Cloister Diner because of its cylindrical shape and gleaming stainless steel exterior, opened its doors at 6 a.m. on Feb. 28, 1952. On that day, local businessman Ira E. Fasnacht purchased the first cup of coffee, paying $5 on the condition that the diner’s operator, William Sebastian, contribute the money to the then fledgling Ephrata

Recreation Center located in an old armory just a short walk from the diner on Cloister Avenue.

In 1973, the Cloister Restaurant, as it was called after it had been enlarged to its present size, was put up for sale. Elva Stauffer and her late husband Aaron were interested.

“I ran a restaurant in New Holland when I was 16,” said Elva, now 93.

Her father ran a horse auction and built a small addition onto his auction barn in which to sell food.

“People came in for sandwiches and soup and then went out to the auction,” she said. “I baked my own pies, made my own soups and all.”

A neighbor told her the Cloister was for sale.

“So I stopped one Sunday on my way home from church and had some dinner,” she said. “We checked with a realtor and we bought it.”

The next 46 years are Ephrata history.

Now the restaurant is closed and its final week was one of bittersweet memories as well-wishers and last time customers flocked in to say good-bye and enjoy one last meal.

“Wednesday night and Thursday night we were packed,” son Ron said Saturday evening. “Friday we were full, too. Today’s been steady. I guess a lot of people are away for the holiday.”

Those who stopped in said “they hate to see us go.”

“They hope somebody buys it who’ll keep it the same way it is,” Ron said. “I’m hoping that too.”

Everyone seemed to feel that way Saturday. Peg and Charles Knauf of Ephrata came out one final time. In her younger days, Peg worked eight years for Elva. She said she “felt sad.”

“I don’t want it to close,” she said. “I want it to stay open. I wish I had the money. I’d take it over.”

Shirley Gerlach of Ephrata also stopped by for a final meal. Her mother had worked for Elva “for many, many years and I’d help out once in a while when they needed help.”

“It’s taking away a landmark,” she said. “This place has been here forever.”

Linda Deibler of Brickerville said she’s known Elva “since I was a teenager.”

“My mom brought us in here to eat,” Deibler said. “Now I’m retired, and I hate to see her go. There’s always a smile on her face and the food’s delicious. I’m going to miss this lady.”

Among the crowd of diners on that last day were some first-timers. Bob and Sue Hafer of Sinking Spring were passing through town when Sue Googled places to eat and Cloister Restaurant popped up.

“We like little mom and pop places, so we thought we’d try it,” Sue said.

Entering, she saw a sign for Elva’s specialty, corn pie, and decided to indulge in a local dish.

“It was delicious,” she said.

Bob had veal parmesan as he reflected on the restaurant’s closing.

“When we got to the door I saw the sign that they were closing,” he said. “At first I thought it was just for the day. Then I saw it was permanent.”

He was impressed by the family-like atmosphere of the restaurant.

“It’s a shame when community places like this close down,” he said. “It’s a crime. It’s like a family, It’s local customers. There’s a lot of friendship.”

The couple was thrilled when Elva stopped by to greet them personally and they enjoyed a long chat.

Pete and Elaine Boylan of Wyomissing had a similar experience. First timers at Cloister, they opted to stop in as they passed through town. Elaine had heard of the Cloister “while growing up in Reading” but they’d never tried it before.

“My wife said ‘it’s dinner time, let’s stop in and eat at this place,’” Pete said.

They noticed the outside appearance of the building and were impressed.

“We both thought it looks beautiful from outside, and if it looks good on the outside, it’s going to be good on the inside,” Pete said.

The number of cars in the parking lot also grabbed his attention.

“We both said the place has to be good because the parking lot’s full,” Pete said.

The couple did not have Elva’s signature corn pie but they did manage to snag the Cloister’s last two slices of peach pie. They also had a long chat with Elva herself.

Elva Stauffer stands by the door of the Cloister Diner after closing one last time. Photo by Tina Thompson.

Perhaps most affected by the closing, other than Elva and Ron, were the Cloister’s employees, many of whom have been there for years.

Jim Loose, shortly before closing.

Elva Stauffer talks with Pete and Elaine Boylan of Sinking Springs. It was the Boylan’s first time there. They found the Cloister Diner when the Boylans were passing through town and Mrs. Boylan had heard about the Cloister’s food and asked husband to stop. They bought the last two slices of Elva’s peach pie. Photos by Dick Wanner.

 

Tina Thompson at the grill. Worked off and on beginning as a teen, came back nights six weeks ago to help close. Works for Sen. Ryan Aument. Mike Gockley, a fixture for 30+ years, washes dishes, helps with ordering, other duties.

Ron Stauffer at his usual post, checking out customers Bob and Sue Hafer.

 

A vintage Cloister Diner postcard from the 1950s.

Long-time waitress Shirley Foltz has hundreds of diner stories to share.

Marie Crowther, whose daughter Bonnie is Elva’s daughter-in-law, was helping to waitress during the last week. Marie had worked part time at the restaurant for 11 years, although she doesn’t recall the dates.

“I love it here,” she said. “I’m sad we’re closing.”

Karen Orth spent 18 of her 35 years as a waitress working for Elva. Her last job had been at the Akron Restaurant before it closed.

“It’s bittersweet,” she said. “A lot of people here are my friends. You get to know them. You know what they want. You get their drinks ready. A lot order the same thing over and over.”

She will look for work elsewhere.

Shirley Foltz worked for Elva for 38 or 40 years.

“I lost track,” she said.

Working at the Cloister has given her many good memories.

“I met a lot of nice people through the years and they’re still my friends,” she said. “On a Friday night and on Sundays, people would stand outside on the pavement waiting to get in. Elva had a wonderful business. People won’t get the good old-fashioned food like corn pie, pig stomach and schnitz und knepp any other place.”

Shirley also ate breakfast at the Cloister every morning.

“This is my second home,” she said. “I could cry.”

Shirley, whose daughter, granddaughter and grandson had also once worked for Elva, said she will now retire.

Elva felt bad for her employees.

“I’ll miss them and I think they’ll miss the place,” she said. “Some of them worked earlier today and I think it was hard for them to leave knowing they won’t be back.”
Prepping for the final days called for a lot of work. Over the final six weeks Elva and her staff baked almost 700 corn pies and 150 peach pies. They sold like hot cakes; maybe better. In corn pies alone they went through 25 on Wednesday, 40 on Thursday, 38 on Friday and 36 on Saturday. Elva enjoyed telling customers, especially first-timers like the Boylans and Hafers, about how the corn is harvested each week from her son Clark’s farm. Then she and about ten “retired ladies” gather around a wagon to husk it and cut it from the cob before bringing it to the restaurant to cook.

Saturday, the final day, was an emotional rollercoaster for Elva.

“It’s kind of upsetting,” she reflected. “I’m missing my people. I’ve enjoyed all of them. A lot of people who are long-time customers say they don’t know where they’re going to go now to eat. I tell them I’m sorry. I hate to leave, too. I enjoyed everybody coming here, but all things come to an end.”

With 46 years at the restaurant over, what’s next for Elva?

“I’ll look for a job I guess,” she said. “A couple of days a week. I’m not going to sit at home.”

She hopes a new buyer might allow her come in to help out.

“I don’t want to cook, but I’ll help waitress or clean up,” she said. “But then again, maybe that’s not the best idea. I might feel that I could do things differently.”

Ron, 67, will also look “for something to keep me occupied” although he hasn’t made any firm decisions yet.

“I hate getting out of it,” he said of the restaurant. “I’ll miss all the customers, people you see every day. But it’s time to move on.”

The future for the restaurant itself is uncertain. Elva said the realtor had shown around a family who owned an eatery in Berks County.

“There was a family here a couple days ago,” she said. “They talked to the realtor and I didn’t hear any more. We hope to get a buyer and keep it going like it is.”

About a month ago there was a prospective buyer form New Holland but the deal fell through.

“The restaurant business is tricky,” Ron said.

For now the Cloister Restaurant’s doors are closed and locked.

“We’ll come back Monday morning to clean up,” Elva said Saturday. “I’ll miss my people. I’ve enjoyed everyone who’s come in.”

Larry Alexander is a correspondent for The Ephrata Review. 

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