Small-town Surprise

The City Café has been operating in Newman Grove, a vibrant small town in northeast Nebraska, for over 100 years. Residents still fondly recall Phyllis Weitzel serving the church crowd with popular Sunday buffets.

After owning and operating the cafe for 25 years, Weitzel listed the café on Craig’s List, where Adam and Dawn Witchell, a young Omaha couple who’d never set foot in Newman Grove or run a restaurant, spied the opportunity. It took just three visits to convince the former Boys Town family teachers to take the plunge and make the purchase. Sadly, Weitzel unexpectedly passed away before the Witchells took ownership in early 2015.

Peggy Patzel generously kept the establishment running in the interim, and Adam and Dawn Witchell dove in, learning quickly what appealed to regular customers and what fell flat. Patzel’s daughter-in-law, Delores, remains a mainstay in the café, greeting customers with a sunny smile and efficient manner. Paula Stone is the only other employee, serving customers when Delores is occupied with baking or her children’s activities.

In the early years, Adam posted the quirky hand-written chalkboard of daily specials on social media. His clever banter and consistent presence soon attracted a wide range of followers, including celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, popular comedian Larry the Cable Guy, Nebraska State Troopers, local television personalities, and Omaha-based “foodies”.

In the early days of the Covid-19 shutdown, a loyal Twitter fan from Omaha decided to make the 4-hour round trip to Newman Grove for takeout and offered to bring back a few pies for other Tweeters. The owners agreed, and Adam posted a seemingly innocuous invitation. Within minutes they were inundated with requests.

Floored by the response, the tiny team worked well into the wee hours of the morning, hand-crafting close to 50 pies and 85 hand pies, all rolled by hand, baked in a noncommercial oven, and packaged securely. The proverbial “cherry on top” is the personalized message or drawing penned on each parcel. A Target parking lot served as the delivery site, which filled with Twitter fans and local radio personalities all waiting in line to purchase a pie.

City Café followers who missed out on the initial pie run made their disappointment known, and soon Matt Vrzal, former Husker football star and radio personality offered to do a second run. Vrzal is also owner of the popular Piezon’s pizza, and through an inspired partnership, City Café pie fans can pick up a slice or two along with their pizza.

Describing the Witchells as hands-on owners is an understatement. They do it all—slinging hash browns in the morning and burgers when the noon whistle blows. After closing at 2pm, baking time commences, whether that be their famous pies or the popular Grover pockets. The couple appreciates the importance of community support and uses local purveyors for produce, eggs, and beef as much as possible.

Recent media darlings, Dawn and Adam are grateful for the love but brush off the praise. “We are like the dollar store version of toys—suitable but nothing special,” said Dawn. Clearly this work ethic is part of the appeal, as city folks are drawn to this tiny town eatery serving delicious food and authentic service with a big heart.

Small towns need businesses and services to survive, and most local customers visit an average of four times a week because it’s part of their lives, not because it’s the cool place to go. A bench outside the door emblazoned with Weitzel’s name serves as a reminder of the Café’s history, and how much it, and the individuals running it, mean to the close-knit community.

Give the City Café a follow on social media and make time for a road trip to this special place. Park the car out front, admire the vintage Mountain Dew sign, head in and take a seat. Order the special and leave room for pie—it’s worth it.

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