Sweigart’s last stand?

By on October 3, 2018
Scott and Carla Sweigart pose with one of their signature steak sandwiches. According to Scott, this will likely be the last time the familiar sandwich will be served at the yearly Ephrata Fair. Photo by Missi Mortimer

Scott and Carla Sweigart pose with one of their signature steak sandwiches. According to Scott, this will likely be the last time the familiar sandwich will be served at the yearly Ephrata Fair. Photo by Missi Mortimer

This one’s for you, “BIP!”

That’s the message posted to the Sweigart’s Steaks 2018 Facebook page. But this is no regular mom and pop business­this is an Ephrata icon.

Members of the Sweigart family say they may have served steak sandwiches for the final time last week during the Ephrata Fair, all in memory of their late father. Now in its 80th year of business, the third generation owner, Scott Sweigart, says they’ll be hanging it up for good now that the fair has ended.

And despite its “off the beaten path” location in recent years, the day we visted, the small building in the alley off of Main Street had a steady stream of customers coming and going.

Between orders, Sweigart shared some personal memories of growing up and being involved in the business.

“I remember coming back from elementary school and running up to the fair to slice buns,” he said, with both eyes on the hot grill. “That was my job. Then as I get older, I was old enough to work behind the stands cooking.”

Now 52, he’s been doing just that for over four decades.

“I would help set up and tear down, and learned a lot from my grandfather. He was a very tough man to work for, but we survived all these years.”

“My family had a steak shop on Church Street and then later, one on State Street,” he added. “My grandfather also made homemade ice cream, root beer, and subs.”

After closing the brick and mortar, the business would continue each year on the streets of Ephrata during the annual fair. Six years ago, the business would relocate to a garage in an alley off of Main Street.

“My mom was ill, and they wanted to get out of it,” Sweigart said. “We all had fulltime jobs. I ended up having this garage and I thought I can’t give this up. So I just started this slowly with two grills, and he we are.”

To this day, it’s still a true family affair­Scott’s two sisters, as well as his brother, all chip in to help during fair season. This year, the larger grill they use is rented, but Sweigart owns three smaller ones which he plans to sell.

Inside the large doors of the garage, countless photographs — both color and black and white — adorn the walls, and among the napkins, bags of potato chips, and the smell of the hot grill, patrons — both young and old — swapped stories and reminisced, all thankful they had one last year to enjoy this beloved tradition.

“In February, my dad was down here (in the garage) building a table, and I talked to him and said ‘Hey, what do you think, do you want to help me?’

‘Yeah, why? do you think I’m leaving you?’ his father said. “He died a week later,” Scott added.

As a child, Ronald, or “Bip” as he was affectionately known, helped his own father in the food business. Soon after, they started Sweigart’s Restaurant on Church Street, which they operated for many years. They eventually opened Sweigart’s Steak Shop on State Street, which they later sold.

So what’s their secret to success?

“It’s the meat,” Sweigart says. “It’s 100 percent beef with no preservatives. “You gotta buy quality to make people happy.” Pair that with fresh rolls from ATV in Reading, add some sauce, cheese, and top it all off with peppers, and you’ve got yourself a hand-held Ephrata legend.

According to him, any food that was left over at the end of the fair will be donated to the Water Street Rescue Mission.

“There’s no sense to me keeping it here and holding it when I can give it to somebody that can use it,” he said.

Turns out, they never had that chance.

“We completely sold out by 5 o’clock Saturday,” Sweigart said. “It was crazy.”

And while he still has to finalize the paperwork from last week, by all accounts the fair — as well as their army of fans — were all very good to the Sweigart family.

So is this really the last year of business? “Supposedly,” he says. “It’s a hard task. It’s not something you’re gonna find someone young to do.”

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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