Final year for a fair legend Make no mi’steak’ — it’s the end of an era for Sweigart’s

By on September 26, 2012

By: MICHELLE REIFF Review Staff, Staff Writer

Members of the Sweigart family set up for their last time selling the famous steak sandwiches in their trailer on Ephrata's Main Street. The old sign from their former restaurant still hangs inside. (Photo by Stan Hall)

As visitors from near and far eat their way down Main Street Saturday, the Sweigart family will serve its last cheesesteak on the Ephrata Fair midway.

A legacy that began nearly 80 years ago with a young Clarence Sweigart, the famous Sweigart’s Steaks will come to an end — and will surely be missed by fairgoers young and old.

"It’s about 80 or 90 hours of work for the week," said Scott Sweigart, the grandson of the late founder — sad to see the tradition end, but aware of the lack of time and manpower to continue the work involved in creating the delectable sandwiches.

He and his siblings — Ronald Lee, Peg, Tracey and Deb — are paid workers in the business who also have other full-time jobs. Their parents, Ronald Lamar and Marie Sweigart, have been very instrumental in the success of the endeavor, but are now in their 70s.

At 76, Ronald still spends three dedicated hours on his own peeling 450 pounds of onions by hand in his Stevens warehouse the Saturday before the Ephrata Fair — 700 total including the New Holland Fair the next week. He also fries two tons of beef by himself.

"Till we get our meat in, our sauces, peppers and onions, then we have to load the trailer up, load the truck up, make sure everything’s ready to go, the dishes need to be washed at the end of the night," said Scott. "We just don’t have the time."

The warehouse where the family stores its supplies and equipment is currently up for sale, but its members have decided to hold onto their established space in front of the Re-Uzit Shop at the Ephrata Fair.

"We are not ending the fair other than doing the steak sandwiches," said Scott, hinting at the possibility of simply switching gears to a tasty, but simpler alternative.

The Sweigarts are almost positive they will do the same for the New Holland Fair.

Ronald sat with his wife and son around their kitchen table earlier this week looking at old photos, taking a trip back through the history of a long, well-enjoyed ride. Proud of his family’s accomplishments, he spoke of a time he was barely old enough to remember…

"He first started at the upper bank (Ephrata National Bank)," Ronald said of his father’s stand which started back in the 1940s. "At first they sold hot dogs and hamburgers. I was underneath the grill in a bread box sleeping."

Over the years the hot dogs were replaced with the steak sandwiches of today and the tent was substituted with a stand and eventually a trailer.

Although only in his 20s, Clarence became well-known over the next few years, and the sandwiches achieved fame with the opening of Sweigart’s Steak Shop at two locations. Many Ephrata residents may remember visiting the popular spots on Church Ave. and State Street.

Through his business and advertising, Clarence began the success his family has continued to this day. With connections outside of Ephrata, he was even able to bring the first string band to the fair — coincidentally this year marks the return of the Woodland String Band of Philadelphia, who received first-place in the string band division at this past year’s Mummers Parade.

"Your grandfather was a well-dressed man," Scott has heard from many who knew him.

A police officer, "Swig," as Clarence was known to many, instilled a strict "you work for your dollar" ethic in Scott at an early age.

"I was only 15 when he died at age 84, but I was always a tagalong with him when he bought the restaurant," he said. "That’s how I learned my respect."

Marie, a former sewing factory worker, spent quite a bit of time taking care of the children while her husband and father spent countless hours working the fair. But she still found the time to assist with the business.

"I’ve been doing it 53 years," she said. "At one point they even sold homemade sodas, subs and ice cream."

In addition to Ephrata and New Holland, Marie said Sweigart’s has participated in fairs in Lititz, Columbia and York.

Scott revealed that, in addition to the banana peppers offered as a condiment, there is one more quality that makes the sandwiches taste so good and stand out from others.

"Most steak meats have sodium with water. …Our meat is 100 percent beef," he said There is nothing added to it."

He noted that the family gets the meat from Martin’s Markets, but Martin’s doesn’t process it. It is just a distributor.

All family members agreed it’s been quite an era — one that won’t soon be forgotten.

So get one of those renowned sandwiches this week while they’re hot. And who knows, maybe next year will mark the start of a new legacy in the same location. Stay tuned. More SWEIGART’S, page A18

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