June 5, 2019
DEFINITION: Extremely tasty; delicious.
When it comes to home-cooked breakfast and lunch, you get it Betty’s way. Or you don’t get the darn thing at all.
Betty’s Café has been serving homemade plates of favorites like biscuits and gravy, meatloaf, fried chicken, deviled eggs and pie for 31 years, and has become a true St. Joseph icon.
Located along a row of other local businesses along King Hill Avenue, it’s a place where the old-school diner rules still apply: the specials change daily, and they’re written on a dry erase board; order your pie with your meal, because favorites like coconut cream and fresh strawberry (in-season) get scratched off the dry erase board fairly quickly; bring cash, which is clearly stated in large letters on a handmade door sign – but the locals all know it; breakfast is served all day, including the famous biscuits and gravy; there’s limited seating along the vinyl chairs at the counter; and the “open seating” policy always applies. This means at Betty’s, your table is a community table if it’s not full when your party sits down.
But most importantly, everything is served “Betty’s Way,” the phrase you’ll see on the walls and the waitress’ T-shirts. This is a very good thing, because Betty’s way means the customer comes first and making the customer happy is the number one priority.
Owner Pat Peek is Betty Ball’s daughter and helped keep customers happy alongside her mother for years. When Betty Ball passed away two years ago, Pat took the reins as owner, with her daughter, Stevie Hartman, alongside her as the manager.
“I’ve been doing this my whole life. I cooked and worked right there by my mom since the first day we opened,” says Pat. “I remember how full we were that day and it surprised us. We hardly had enough help that day. We’ve never slowed down since.”
Betty passed away in 2017 after three decades of cooking and was a “legend in the kitchen,” says Pat. She was known to work all day at the café and then return at 10 p.m. to bake homemade pies. “She never cut corners, and we don’t, either. You can’t get food like this anywhere else, and a lot of the menu is the same since day one.”
The staff at Betty’s reflects the same consistency, with three out of the four members of the serving team having been there more than 20 years. “We’re really a family, more than just employees,” says Pat. “We help each other out at our tables, and we’re in this together as a team.”
This makes sense when you witness the efficient hum at Betty’s. A classic metal turnstile collects handwritten notepad orders and keep on spinning as steaming plates are set on the counter. The waitresses greet customers by name (and/or “hon”) while making a quick dash to refill a drink at another table. From the kitchen, you can hear the cook staff saying things like “out of deviled eggs” (a popular side) or the much-loved pickled beets and rotini salad. A member of the waitress staff will wipe off any table that’s around to keep it ready for the next group, and there’s a stack of slightly crumpled newspapers in the corner that you don’t pay for. You just grab, read and return to the stack.
The motion never stops, but the atmosphere remains as casual and friendly as a mom’s kitchen table. Customers are known to come from Kansas City on Saturday mornings, and many have asked if there could be a Betty’s Café in their town.
“I think we’ve been successful for so long because it’s friendly and cozy here, and all the food is real,” says Pat. “When people sit with people they don’t know at a table, a lot of times they end up becoming friends and start coming back on a regular basis together. That’s how it is here.”
Loren Ross and his son, Doug, are some of these regulars. Loren has been coming to Betty’s about three times a week, he says, for a decade. Dressed in overalls, he represents about one-third of the Betty’s crowd – with the other diners a mix of laborers, business people and families. His waitress says “Well, hey you two,” when they arrive, and then she’s off to get the drinks she knows they’ll order. She doesn’t need to give Loren and Doug a menu most of the time.
When asked if he prefers breakfast or lunch at Betty’s, Loren says it’s both. “A lot of times I order breakfast when I come in at noon. Usually the eggs and the American fries.” (These are a kind of country style potatoes.) If you don’t want breakfast, Loren says “Just get what’s on the specials board.”
The cash-only policy doesn’t bother Loren at all, like most of the customers. “Well, I usually carry money, so it’s fine,” he says.
Pat explains that the cash-only way has worked well over the years to help speed up the experience so that customers don’t wait very long for good food. “It’s about quick service, but friendly, and good homemade food at reasonable prices. Paying with cash helps keep that going. We don’t have to mess with Internet issues or anything like that.”
She also says that the doors open at 5 a.m., officially, but sooner for their “regulars.”
“We do have a night shift so we can be ready with breakfast when our first customers arrive, which is typically before 5 a.m. We don’t mind spoiling our customers. And we are just fine with that,” she says. The regulars are fine with that, too. Betty’s earned the 2019 “Readers’ Choice” Award in St. Joseph for best breakfast, among other “Readers’ Choice” nominations.
Later in the day, breakfast is still flying off the counter, but lunch specials keep the tables full, too. On Wednesday and Saturday it’s Betty’s meatloaf, which is always popular year-round. On Fridays, it’s fried chicken. Loren offers a piece of advice. “Get there early on fried chicken Fridays,” he says.
Pat says they’ve tried new things on the menu over the years, and most all have been successful. “Our tacos are huge, and served with rice and beans. We have these a couple of times a month on Tuesdays, and the customers really like them. Our burnt ends are doing well. We added in some new desserts, like dump cake, and it’s worked even though our pies are always a big seller.”
And then the tenderloins. Pat says it’s because they take the extra steps to make them really good. “We cut the fresh pork ourselves, and then tenderize it and batter them – every one is made by hand.”
Like a lot of local restaurants, there are unique menu offerings you really can’t get anywhere else. The Bubba Hashbrowns are extra crispy and topped with jalapenos, onions and sausage gravy. The long list of sandwiches includes the brain sandwich. The list of regular specials is posted almost every week on the café’s Facebook page, which may be the only digital footprint Betty’s ever made.
Doug Ross, Loren’s son, says it this way: “Lots of places out there have foo-foo food and stuff. Not here.”
When customers leave, most give a general wave and a “see you later” to the whole room. Even though it’s bustling, “it’s still our own secret place, where things don’t really need to be any different,” says Pat.
After all, this is Betty’s way. And that’s not changing anytime soon.
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