STURGEON — In the early hours of a recent Tuesday morning, the lighted sign at Heuer’s Country Store and Cafe is the only thing visible along this stretch of U.S. 63. Pamala Johnson arrives at the restaurant at 3:30 a.m. to turn on the lights and prepare the cafe for the day. Working with the practiced ease of long experience, she navigates the narrow kitchen, whipping pepper sausage gravy and placing trays of biscuits in the oven.
Johnson says that over her thousands of mornings at Heuer’s she has fried tens of thousands of strips of bacon. She bends to drag a 50-pound box of Farmland double-smoked bacon from its spot in the refrigerator and heaves it onto the counter to start that morning’s portion.
“I’m getting too damn old to carry around this big box of bacon.”
Johnson, known as Pam to her friends and customers, is a waitress at Heuer’s Country Store and Cafe. Located north of Columbia on Highway 63, Heuer’s has served as a community hub and second home to the surrounding area since its opening in 1999.
The sun has still not begun to rise when Johnson’s first customer of the morning arrives. Before the man can reach the porch and wipe his boots to enter, Johnson has a cup of coffee and a glass of water waiting at his regular table.
Leroy Carlos, a regular customer at Heuer’s, greets her in return. They share an easy conversation about the St. Louis Cardinals and mutual acquaintances, accompanied by the low murmuring of the morning news on a television in the corner. The entire scene has the air of a comfortable tradition. No one would peg them as waitress and customer, but instead as old friends.
Over the next half hour, the rest of the morning regulars trickle in. Each customer is greeted by Johnson and a freshly poured mug of coffee waiting at his usual seat.
Beryl McBride, Dale Blakemore and Donald Palmer take up the center table in the cafe. The trio, whom Johnson affectionately refers to as "trouble," occupy the same table every morning for coffee and company.
During the next hour, they discuss everything from Missouri basketball to work at the area quarries and who is repairing whose truck.
“We don’t really talk about a whole lot,” said McBride, a retired postal carrier from Harrisburg. “We just talk.”
Blakemore plans to spend the winter months in Texas with his wife. He assures his friends that he’ll send them postcard updates about the warm weather. They assure him that he'll be missed. After all, Blakemore is the ring leader when it comes to the good-natured ribbing. He likes to pull Johnson's apron strings or tease his friends about aging or politics.
“Heuer’s is closer to home,” Blakemore said. “Plus I like to give the waitress trouble some times.”
The table breaks into snickers. Johnson, who stands pouring coffee at a nearby booth, huffs loudly and rolls her eyes.
Traditions and new beginnings
Heuer’s Country Store and Cafe got its start during the deer hunting season of 1999, but the building that houses it has been a fixture of the local community far longer. Originally built as a service station in 1949, the simple structure has housed a number of different country stores and restaurants through the years.
Jamie Heuer, owner, manager and namesake of the business, remembers the store from when he was a boy. Heuer grew up in and around the building while it was McGlasson’s Grocery and later Ralph’s Market. He said he spent a majority of his childhood in those stores, helping out and spending time with local farmers.
When the restaurant was put up for sale, Heuer jumped at the opportunity to reunite with his “boyhood home.”
Heuer was employed at the time as a supervisor at Schneider Electric and had no background in restaurant work. The entire Heuer family pitched in to help with cleaning and preparing the building for business.
His wife, Tammy Heuer, is a registered nurse at University Hospital who covers extra shifts at the restaurant. Heuer’s children also help out. Brooke Heuer, who graduated from MU in hotel and restaurant management, waits tables. Austin Heuer, a sophomore at Moberly Area Community College in Columbia, and Hailey Heuer, a senior at Harrisburg High School, wash dishes. Heuer’s mother, Betty Heuer, did the baking when the restaurant first opened, and Tammy Heuer’s aunt, Mary Harrison, flew in from Alabama to run the kitchen.
As Heuer puts it, the food was good right off the bat.
“Most of the people around here knew me as a kid growing up, so they were excited,” Heuer said. “It was like open arms.”
Where the locals eat
Julie Lipscomb and her son, Scott, own and work a corn and soybean farm just down Highway 63 from Heuer’s. Lipscomb has grown up in the area, and like Heuer himself has seen the cafe through its different owners.
“How long have we been here? Well, how long has Heuer’s been open?”
Johnson walks past carrying a tray of food and interjects. “They were here before I came.”
Lipscomb is one of a crowd of regulars who eat at Heuer’s nearly every day. She explains that while the food and convenient location are part of the draw, there is something more important to the restaurant’s appeal.
The restaurant draws most of its patronage from nearby Sturgeon, Harrisburg, Hallsville and 30 miles of surrounding farm land, Heuer said. For Lipscomb and other area residents, Heuer’s serves as the central hub of northern Boone County.
“We don’t really have a little town here, so this is the community center,” Lipscomb said. “It’s a community connection more so than the food.”
But the food does bring customers.
Heuer’s boasts a full breakfast menu, a mixture of traditional cafe fare and food your grandmother would have cooked. Biscuits and gravy, hash browns, pancakes, fried eggs and sausage sandwiches are a few options. Lunch and dinner may be pork tenderloin, meatloaf or cheeseburgers.
Last but not least, Heuer’s chilled dessert refrigerator hosts a selection of homemade pies and cakes to sate any sweet tooth: slices of pumpkin pie, butternut squash cake and chocolate cream pie sit nestled on individual plates, each skewered with a tiny plastic sword.
While the food might draw customers, it’s the familiar atmosphere and sense of family that keep customers coming back every day. Locals such as Lipscomb and the morning regulars spend hours enjoying the company. Heuer’s is a place to visit with neighbors, catch up with friends from town, exchange news and check in on the community.
Even the decor of Heuer's speaks to its deeply ingrained sense of community.
Framed sketches and paintings of Heuer's compete for wall space with mounted fish and trophy deer heads presented to the store by regulars. An arm-length charcoal print of Heuer's iconic front porch is Johnson's favorite.
“It’s my second home,” Johnson said of the cafe. “If I’m not home I’m here.”
Heuer’s is a family that takes care of its own.
“He’s helped out his customers if they’ve been in a bind,” Johnson said.
A local Harrisburg school teacher had an accident that left her with a broken neck. While she recuperated in the hospital, Heuer personally delivered her favorite iced tea or a warm breakfast every day.
Johnson said that's just one example of many that illustrate how Heuer’s looks after its community. Another way the cafe gives back is by remaining open on holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s. Folks without family to share the day with or regulars who simply want to stop by for company can enjoy biscuits and gravy or anything else on the menu.
“He says that a lot of them ain't got no place to go, so he puts up for them," Johnson said. "A lot of the time he does it by himself, but he’s open.”
Heuer demonstrates his appreciation to his customers in several ways. At least once a year, he holds a customer appreciation day, when he treats his patrons to free cake or a meal on the house. Heuer’s also hosts a Fourth of July festival every year with a massive fireworks display, or burger dinners to help raise money for the Harrisburg Senior Center.
“I know from the bottom of my heart that if I would need something and Jamie had it, he would help me out,” Johnson said of her friend and boss.
Palmer, a retired trucker who lives in the area, orders a sausage sandwich with mustard and pickles for breakfast.
“I usually eat over here every morning. I don’t know how to cook. I burn toast, so I’m in trouble.”
The morning regulars laugh and sip their coffee as they do every morning.
Many of the regulars are elderly and some are unwell. In such a close-knit community, their absence from morning routines can be unsettling. Heuer makes a point of keeping an eye on attendance and checks in on patrons he hasn't seen in a while.
"It's hard, because you get to know these older people," Johnson said. "Then you have to watch them go downhill."
Heuer has a collection of snapshots documenting the regular crowd through the years. Many pictures feature customers who have moved on or died. Johnson said Heuer hopes to create a wall collage commemorating his loyal customers and friends.
The breakfast rush swells and dwindles. Regulars finish their mugs, swipe the last few crumbs from ceramic plates and tuck folded dollar bills under their coffee cups to pay. One by one they leave, and Johnson clears away their dishes as she has many times before.
They will be back tomorrow.