Barely 9 a.m., and already the place is rocking.
Little Richard croons "Good Golly Miss Molly" on the jukebox. Clouds of smoke rise from the counter as the regulars take their places on stools with curved orange-and-red vinyl backs. Pat Carraway, clad in black polyester pants and a blue cotton top, bolts from counter to table, pulling out her pad and talking almost as fast as she moves.
"More coffee, babe?" she asks yet another customer as she slides past a table at the White Coffee Pot in Brooklyn Park. To Ms. Carraway, everybody's "Babe." She learned that 30 years ago, when at 16 she started working at her first White Coffee Pot, at Hanover Street and Patapsco Avenue.
Today, when she stops pouring coffee, telling stories and rushing about long enough to look around at the faces that have become as familiar as family, she can hardly hold back her tears. Sunday, this little piece of Americana that time forgot shuts down for good -- a victim of an aging customer base and the public predilection for fast food.
Once the lights are turned off Sunday evening at the Ritchie Hi-Way Shopping Center White Coffee pot, only two restaurants -- in Randallstown and at the Erdman Shopping Center -- will remain of a chain that once numbered 33 and served customers throughout Maryland.
"It's almost like leaving home," says Sarah Johns, 51, who has managed the same crew of waitresses and cooks for 15 years on Ritchie Highway. "We've all grown older together."
Memories abound: the time Ms. Carraway, known as the accident-prone one, got knocked over the head with a tray of flour; the time Ms. Johns got so rushed she misplaced a fish order in the cash box. Ms. Carraway laughs at the stories, so caught up that she forgets the bacon in Stanley Yutzy's bacon-and-egg sandwich. Mr. Yutzy, seated in his spot at the counter, lifts off a piece of toast and shakes his head good-naturedly.
A Maryland tradition
"Real good-hearted people come in here," the waitress says. "I love these people, and they love me, too."
"Let me have some coffee if you love me so much," interrupts Alvin Ruffini, who sipped his first hot cup at a Charles Street "Pot" as a teen-ager in the '50s. He often stops in for dinner and never misses breakfast before he goes to his job at SCM Chemicals at Hawkins Point.
"It's like a family tradition," Mr. Ruffini says. "People are friendly, they treat you like a gentleman and the food is good and reasonable. It starts your day off kind of good. There'll be a void there, something you looked forward to in the morning, then it's gone."
Not so long ago, from Baltimore to Cumberland, you never had to go far to find the familiar outline of a coffee kettle with the words "White Coffee Pot" inside. Born in the Depression, when Myles and Betty Katz bought three struggling restaurants in Baltimore, the chain served up healthy portions cheap. In 1932, the chain's first year, a complete Thanksgiving Dinner went for 75 cents.
But the restaurant's appeal went beyond what many believe is indisputably one of the best cups of coffee around and its square, if simple, meals. Everywhere they sprung up, it seems, White Coffee Pots became neighborhood gathering spots, places where everybody really did know your name.
By the 1970s, the chain had grown to 33 restaurants. But the larger Horn & Horn cafeterias -- which White Coffee Pot Family Inns Inc. bought in 1956 and built up over the years -- emerged as the moneymakers. The larger cafeterias and buffets ran more efficiently and served more people. From a business standpoint, the era of the intimate, service-oriented Coffee Pots had ended. When leases expired, the company, still run by the Katz family, opted not to renew.
Walk into the Brooklyn Park restaurant, and you find a throwback to another time, in more ways than one. Nobody gives smokers dirty looks -- not that it'd do much good -- or seems to fret much about the mega-doses of cholesterol in fried foods and dishes slathered with butter.
While fast-food joints stamp out burgers, White Coffee Pot's menu still touts popular grilled liver-and-onion specials. Even the toaster's a relic from the 1950s that often gets chuckles from regulars who know a good piece of toast comes slow here.
And mornings don't start until Jack Baker, a retired electrician from Brooklyn Park, slips a quarter into the counter-top jukebox and wakes up with Little Richard and a coffee.
'Everybody knows everybody'
In 1955, the year it opened, Louise Britton of Brooklyn Park walked to the restaurant with her four children and sat down to her first White Coffee Pot meal.
"I don't care how busy, there are always enough people to help," she says. "They don't walk by a half dozen times. That means a lot to the customer."
This is part of the reason she and her husband, Maurice, keep coming back. When it came time to celebrate their 46th wedding anniversary recently, they looked no farther than the White Coffee Pot a few blocks away.
John and Patricia Hastings of Glen Burnie first ate at the White Coffee Pot in 1956. They still stop in at least twice a week, sometimes with their grandson, Kyle.
"Everybody knows everybody," says Mrs. Hastings. "This is the one restaurant I come to by myself if my husband's working. It's like a big family."
News of Sunday's closing caught most customers off guard. The restaurant had been under a month-to-month lease for a year, since Joleh Corp. began planning to demolish and rebuild at least half of the rundown, outdated shopping center it owns.
That's not likely to happen any time soon, because of the scarcity of real estate construction loans, the owner says. Still, the restaurant would have had to close for about five months during reconstruction, said Malcolm McKnight, manager of support services for White Coffee Pot Family Inns Inc.
Just days before the White Coffee Pot serves its last meal, Ms. Carraway wraps her arms around an elderly woman she's served for years.
"I've hugged so many people this week," she says.
"There's no where else to go. It's sad," laments Peggy Dixon of Brooklyn Park, a Westport packing company worker who has come for breakfast for 23 years. "It's like taking away somebody you knew."