For more than 75 years, Ernie's Cafe has built success on consistency

Sunday, April 21, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:49 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Ernie's Cafe & Steak House has been a Columbia fixture since 1934. "Ernie’s is solid and consistent," manager Nathan Fuchs said. "That’s the beauty of us not changing. And people like that."

*An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote to Tom Spurling.

COLUMBIA — A black and white drawing on the wall in Ernie's Cafe & Steak House shows the interior of the restaurant in 1980.

Ernie's looks almost exactly the same today.

There have been a few changes, but the similarity of the space to the picture on the wall is striking.

A long counter with a row of stools runs down one side of the cafe. A line of booths with tables and chairs fills the other. A drawing of Dick Tracy hangs in front of the kitchen, and a coffee maker is in the same spot behind the counter. 

"Ernie’s is solid and consistent," manager Nathan Fuchs said. "That’s the beauty of us not changing. And people like that."

The restaurant has served generations of diners since it opened in 1934. Ernie's moved to Walnut Street from the north side of Columbia in 1946, relying on the same atmosphere, service and menu that has appealed to hundreds of regular customers.

Fuchs began working at Ernie's in 2004 when he was 19. He grew up in Jefferson City, eating at the restaurant when he made trips to Columbia. In 2007, he stepped into management.

His customers span four generations of returning diners  — former employees now in their 80s, regulars whose children now bring their grandchildren, a woman who participated in a sit-in during the Civil Rights movement.

"I really think the restaurant is its own living thing," he said. "It's kind of like, no matter who owned the building, it would stay the same."

The menu has received only minor tweaks since the '50s, owner Tom Spurling said. Customers who have long since left Columbia will come back and order a No. 3 or No. 11, knowing the item hasn’t changed. 

Several dishes have been coming out of the kitchen for as long as Fuchs can remember. Hash browns, french toast, eggs cooked in a skillet instead of on a flat-top grill.

Customers who don't come in for breakfast might order a chopped cow — a hamburger to the uninitiated. Often, diners simply sit down for a hot cup of coffee.

"Your cup really is never empty," Fuchs said.

That consistency, Spurling said, is the mark of a good restaurant. He bought Ernie’s in 1996 and brought new blood to an old vision, never straying from the essence of a diner.

He has raised prices when he must; he converted an upstairs dining room back into an apartment; and he re-faced the front of the building back to its original Art Deco style. 

When crowds bottlenecked the one door that served as both entrance and exit, he switched the layout so his customers come in one door and leave via the other.

"We’ve created a big circle, which is kind of what Ernie’s is — just a big circle going around generation after generation after generation," Spurling said.

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