TOLEDO — The screen door stood open, the white board out front espoused a daily words-of-wisdom and a chocolate Coke was just a couple of spritzes away at the soda fountain.
On Toledo’s main street (High Street) the Trojan Inn cafe nears its 50th anniversary with signs that time has stood still.
For one, Mary Ann Gardner waited tables when her older sister, Marlene Rhoads, opened the place in 1962 and she’s still waiting tables. Only, now, Mary Ann is the owner.
For another, the Trojan Inn accepted only cash and checks until last November when it added a credit card machine.
And, third, the food is made from scratch.
“Ninety-nine percent of what I do is homemade,” Mary Ann laughs. “No wonder I’m tired.”
Yes, for 50 years the Trojan Inn has been Mary Ann’s second home, her favorite hang out, her life.
It began about May 12, 1962 (an open house will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on May 12), when Marlene and her husband, Dene, decided Toledo could use another cafe. They named it the Trojan Inn after the Trojan mascot of the newly formed South Tama Community School District. Mary Ann, an older sister, Ruth, and their mother, Carrie Becker, became early employees.
Four years later, Marlene and Dene left for Kansas so he could go to school and sold it to her mother. Carrie owned the cafe until she retired at the end of 1983, turning it over to Mary Ann.
“I figured, I’ll take it,” she says. “The business is there, I’ll get the kids through school, I can sell it in five years.”
Hah. That was 28 years ago as of Jan. 1. And two longtime employees — Tonda Swanson, 15 years, and Deb Tonche, on and off for 25 years — say it won’t be sold now.
“Tonda says I have to work here until I’m 80,” Mary Ann says. “That’s 13 years.” She laughs. “I don’t plan to retire as long as I stay healthy.”
Why would she? The cafe was a lifesaver, it holds so many memories and it’s still a popular gathering place.
Mary Ann married in 1965 and only worked here on occasion they moved to Colfax. But two years later, after her husband was killed in a car accident, she returned to Toledo with two children for the comfort of family. As her sons grew up she worked more and more.
In those early days the old-style coffee maker had to be watched so it didn’t boil over, ice was packed around the syrup for pop and, in fact, ice was purchased in 50-pound bags because the restaurant didn’t have an ice maker.
Mary Ann recalls starting at 50 cents an hour plus tips. “If you got a quarter, that was monumental,” she says.
The tradition of making food from scratch, the pie crusts and soups, cinnamon rolls and Thursday hot beef special and breaded pork tenderloins (some customers have taken them to Arizona and Colorado), all began on day one and continue, with Mary Ann arriving about 5 a.m. The Trojan Inn is open 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and closes the weeks of July 4 and Labor Day so she can have time off.
Only once did the Trojan Inn come close to closing for good — in 1994 when she was forced to leave the original place a half-block away. Fortunately her fiance, Larry Applegate (he died in 1998), had the present building available. And the Trojan Inn tradition continues.
“It’s always feast or famine around here,” Mary Ann says. “That’s the way it’s always been. But we have more good days than bad. That’s why we’re still here.”
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