Theta Porter has singlehandedly run her namesake cafe in Squires since 1960.
SQUIRES – The way Jack Mergendahl tells it, it’s nothing short of a miracle that Porter’s Cafe is still in business.
“It’s overpriced, and the food is terrible,” he says. “Service is horrible.”
But perhaps those words should be taken with a grain of salt. A grain from the shaker in front of him. On a table in the cafe. Where he’s been eating for 40 years. A long enough spell to give him permission to kid about the restaurant and its owner, Theta Porter.
“I aggravate her, but I love her,” he says.
It seems he’s not the only one. Other familiar faces — more family than friends — fill Porter’s Cafe on a recent Saturday morning, sipping coffee and catching up. None of them have lived near Squires as long as Mergendahl, but they’ve been around enough to know that Porter is special.
That fact, however, is something even those who don’t know her personally can see — because at 88 years old, Porter singlehandedly serves as the restaurant’s cook, waitress and clean-up crew. And she loves it.
“I get tired, but not of what I do,” Porter says. “I still enjoy it. I like people. Some have become good friends over the years, like the ones sitting out there.”
Beginning the business
Everything Theta Porter serves at her cafe is made-to-order.
The year was 1960 when a 32-year-old Porter started cooking for customers. It all began with her husband’s garage — and her sense of Ozarks hospitality.
“Back when I was young, if someone was at your house at mealtime, you invited them to come and eat,” she says. “So if someone was at the shop having something worked on, and came mealtime … he brought them to the house to eat.”
Since Porter never knew how many people to cook for, she always made extra food.
“I always had to cook a big meal, and always had somebody, that was for sure,” she says — and eventually decided that “if I’m going to have to cook for these people, I just as well get paid for it.”
She’s been getting paid for it ever since. Times, however, haven’t always been easy: Around 10 years after starting up shop, Porter had to relocate the restaurant when the highway was rerouted.
“When the highway changed, it was just like you locked the gate,” she recalls. “There was no one coming.”
Then, in 2006, a fire completely destroyed the restaurant. That unfortunate event, however, didn’t stop a then 78-year-old Porter — nor did it end a streak of bad luck.
“After we had the fire, we rebuilt, and I had been open about a year and I fell and broke my hip,” she says.
But after spending a few weeks to recuperate, she was right back behind her stove. And that’s where she plans to stay.
“What would I do?” she ponders of retirement. “I don’t like to watch television that much. I love to read, but you get tired of that. And I kind of like to mess with my flowers, but you can only do so much of that.
“I just have to have a purpose to get out of bed in the morning.”
Cooking for a living
Porter serves hot cakes to one of her customers. “I like people, and I like to cook,” she says. “So I think the combination is what’s made me stay all these years.”
Those mornings come early so Porter can open the cafe by 7 a.m. That first-light fare features offerings as eggs, hot cakes, French toast and oatmeal, the latter which was a customer’s request on a recent Saturday.
The woman, quicker to smile than her quick oats can cook, waits for a saucepan of water and brown sugar to boil. When it’s just right, she stirs in the oats. Next up is hot cakes, for which Porter pulls out a tin container and dips out some mix. A shelf of cookbooks sits in the well-kept kitchen, but it seems they’re mainly there for decoration.
“I’ll use a cookbook occasionally, but most (recipes) I do from memory,” she says.
Besides breakfast, some of Porter’s offerings include burgers, and sandwiches such as bacon and tomato, ham and cheese and tuna salad. She also whips up chicken, fish and steak, the latter category which features her priciest items — a tie between the chicken fried steak and the pork loin, each coming in at $6.95. That still-modest price tag, however, also gets diners salad and French fries.
And then there’s her homemade pies and cobblers, such as the fresh blackberry one temptingly covered in tinfoil. What other kinds does she make?
“Any kind,” she says. “Whatever people want, that’s what I make.”
She mentions a man who has been in several times to eat recently while working on the highway. He requested peach pie — “so I’ve been making peach pies here lately,” she says.
Don’t ask her, however, to spill the beans on the secret to a perfect pie. “Oh lord, I wouldn’t know,” she says with a laugh. “I just do it.”
Baking a difference
Some of Porter’s customers-turned-friends include (from left to right) Mike Vlad, Laura Walters, Walt Walters and Jack Mergendahl.
Laura Walters, another of Porter’s customers, knows of several other things the longtime cook does well — but they’re not in the kitchen. They’re in the community.
“On Sunday she’ll go to church, and then she goes up to (the convalescent home) and she goes around and sees her friends,” says Walters. “She always goes and checks on everybody.” And, according to Walters, if one of those people need something, Porter helps ensure its taken care of — especially if it’s a pie they want.
Mergendahl agrees. “She’s done a lot of things for the community … but she kind of does it discretely,” he says of Porter.
The cafe’s walls, decorated with plaques, also tell of causes Porter has made a difference to over the years. But perhaps another lasting contribution, not noted on her wall, is her work to keep one of Squire’s social outlets up and running.
“This is a great place,” says Mike Vlad, who recently relocated to Squires with his wife. “When we were looking for property, we saw it. And when we knew we were going to live up here, we thought, ‘Well, that’s where we were going to hang out.’ We really like it.”
In the end, Mergendahl enjoys stopping by and seeing friends, too. Porter is one of those people — but don’t get too sentimental. After all, he’s still looking forward to when “she’s going to go to cooking school so she’ll learn how to cook.”
Want to eat?
Porter’s Cafe is located on Highway 5 in Squires, Mo. The garage still exists, too, but now it’s Porter’s son who runs it.
Porter’s Cafe (Highway 5 Squires, MO; 417-683-2523) is open Monday – Saturday from 7 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.