Downwind by Bob Rohrer, CAE, FBCM, Manager
My wife and I headed to the family farm to celebrate Easter with Mom and Dad. When I heard that Dad, the Farmer, was headed to the local café to enjoy a cup of coffee, I quickly invited myself as there is nothing quite like the local coffee shop to find out the mood in farm country! I hadn’t been to that café in at least 15 years.
Most people patronize a variety of different restaurants and eating establishments, especially in our urban area. However, in farm country, restaurants are sparser, and are mostly found in small communities that feature one, or maybe two, food options. People tend to “frequent” the same place for years.
As we hopped into the Farmer’s truck, I noticed that my Dad was wearing his camouflage FS grain farm cap. I felt a pang of regret; last year, my brother gave me a version of that same hat, but it was in my closet at home. We could have been “hat twins”.
On Saturday mornings, my Dad has a standing coffee date with another farmer, Dave, so we swung by to pick up Dave along the way. Dave lives at the end of a mile-long gravel and dirt driveway. I felt my inner farmer returning as mud caked the truck from that driveway. As Dave stepped into the truck, I noticed that he was wearing his camouflage FS grain cap just like Farmer Dad. Did they coordinate their hat wardrobe? We could have been triplets if only I had brought my camouflage FS grain farm hat!
After a few country miles, we arrived in Fairview, IL, population 522. The town is also home to the Fairview Café. I noted the faded facade outside the café was the same as my last visit over 15 years ago (and probably over the past 50 years). As we walked up, a man exiting the café knew the Farmer and Dave so we took a few minutes to chat about random farm stuff before heading in. I couldn’t help noticing that the man also wore a camouflage FS grain cap… Conspiracy, I wonder? We could have been quadruplets!
As a rule, you do not want to be the first person of the group to enter the café because it brings big responsibility. The first person in gets eyeballed from everyone in the place and must choose which table to sit at. In farm country, choosing the table is an artform. In a farm-oriented restaurant, some seating is reserved for certain people that always sit in the same place, and you certainly don’t want to take someone’s designated “spot”. Also, there is usually a “Liars Table” in which certain farmers, highly skilled in the gift of gab, gather to swap stories and try out half-truths on one another. I certainly didn’t want to sit there.
The strategy for not going in first is to get to the door first and hold the door open for the rest of your group to enter. It sounds courteous, but really, it’s about avoiding being that first person to enter. I almost had to knock over Farmer Dad and Dave to get to the door first. It was a bit like Norm entering the Cheers Bar... Everyone was shouting “howdy” to Farmer Dad and Dave throughout the place. The place was exactly as I remembered: same tables, chairs, carpet, coffee pot, wall hangings, water stains in the ceiling, etc. The décor was similar to the faded façade and had certainly not changed in 15 years (or the past 50 years, probably).
I spotted five or six empty tables, so I was a bit perplexed when the Farmer and Dave headed for a rectangular table for 10 already occupied by two sets of two people on each end. We sat smack in the middle of that table for 10.
As is my habit, my knee hit a table leg while sitting down and I knocked over the coffee of the two farmers on my left side. Embarrassed and expecting anger and irritation, I apologized, saying, “That’s how I like to introduce myself to most people.” The two farmers laughed and retorted “We hope you didn’t break your knee.”
While I was busy spilling coffee and embarrassing myself with the folks at the left side of the table, Farmer Dad was busy introducing me to a man and his wife to my right as “my son from the Chicago area”. Apparently, the word Chicago provides a gut reaction to folks in that café. The man expressed his belief that Chicago be annexed to Siberia or the South Pole. He went on by explaining that he had an idea about bulldozing the city into Lake Michigan but the EPA restricts the dumping of “excrement” in the water.
The next hour was composed of coffee talk about the Cubs, rental houses, squirrels and other wildlife, farming practices, weather, prices, regulations, and references to many farm folks with colorful nicknames. I enjoyed strong coffee and high-quality biscuits and gravy while trying to say little…I had realized that we were at the Liars Table!
During a brief lull in the whoppers, I looked around the restaurant and counted 24 people, men and women, mostly dressed in various levels of camouflage, flannel and seed corn caps, laughing, storytelling, eating, and enjoying one another’s company. I only saw one person sitting solo and he was the only person in the entire restaurant with his nose in his phone…why did that feel so foreign?
Small community cafes and restaurants provide not only nourishment, but wonderful community gathering places connecting rural people in ways that the phone cannot duplicate for friendship, information sharing, and conducting farm business. It felt great to reunite with this feeling of farm community. Thanks Farmer Dad and Dave for letting me tag along! Next time I will bring the team hat!