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Mainstay café in Stephenville voted 2022 winner of Dave Campbell’s ‘Best Game Day Grub’ in Texas

Patty Hullett For the Empire-Tribune

The city of Stephenville and Jake & Dorothy’s Café have grown up together and become a Texas dining tradition since 1948.

As the country-cooking hotspot, located just north of the town square, celebrates its 74th year of business and its heritage of serving the community and outlying areas of Erath County, today’s owner, Kerry Jane Roach, proudly also announces their biggest honor to- date. On May 18, she was informed by a call from Dave Campbell’s Football Magazine that her legacy café de ella was voted the “Best Game Day Grub of 2022”. The voting had taken place in March and April.

“Some of the top eating places across the state of Texas served as top-notch, fierce competitors, but we are so happy to be named as the official winner for 2022. Also, it helps that we have a thriving football community, thanks to Stephenville High School and Tarleton State University,” Roach said.

It started as a couple’s dream

After Jake Roach came back to the States after serving four years in World War II, he landed in Stephenville and took a job as a cashier at Mel’s Café on the town square. There, he met a waitress named Dorothy, and they fell in love and married on March 28, 1946. Their shared dream was to own their own dining place — and this goal was achieved in 1948 when the Roaches bought a building three blocks from the square on East Washington Street, and this eating establishment has remained in business ever since.

The official opening of the café was June 12, 1948. Jake’s job included running the day-to-day operations and his claim to fame was coming up with modified potato cutters that produced the most perfect waffle fries ever. Dorothy, his wife and co-owner, was in charge of the wait staff, as she continued to lead the way in her waitress duties. She simply had a great knack of serving their excellent food with a smile.

The Roaches’ small building consisted mainly of four original booths and a long lunch counter complete with six spinning bar stools. They had an adequate kitchen area, a service window for the waiters/waitresses to pick up their orders and restrooms. In the beginning, their place only accommodated 24 people. But, even today, their menu continues to boast “The Best Place in Town to Eat” and they love to hype that they specialize in chicken fried steak and “Jake’s original and never frozen” waffle fried potatoes. In fact, another interesting quirk is how he served his chicken fried steak on top of the white cream gravy, and he always had a couple of reasons why he chose to have his “best seller” plated differently than most other restaurants. And Jake’s way remains in effect today.

According to Roach’s daughter Kerry, “My daddy felt gravy on the bottom of the meat provided a more appealing way to showcase the crispy batter of the steak, and also it made it easier for the waiter / waitress to carry and stack plates on top of each other (with no gravy mess).”

Kerry continues, “Our family recipes and good food are still being prepared in the Texas home-style tradition of fresh hamburger being ground daily and the favorite chicken fried steak is cut fresh every day as well. Also, the waffle fries are still cut by hand and the potato cutters are still made by little old me.”

More success and more expansion

Over the years, the café grew as the business highway picked up more traffic into town, and, in particular, more truckers, who enjoyed coming into Jake & Dorothy’s for a rest and a good, homecooked meal. Also, their customer base kept increasing as smaller town folks started coming into the city on the weekends. From 1948 to 1956, the Roaches’ hopping place was open 24 hours a day. The truck-driving clientele really appreciated having a good place to eat that stayed open all the time. Over the years, the seating capacity has changed drastically — from 24 to 225 maximum.

Jake and Dorothy Roach loved supporting their community, their schools, and local athletes. In addition, it was always an honor to help fund many projects associated with Tarleton State University. Back in their heyday, and visiting particularly during football season, people would have to wait for a seat because teams and their followers from all over North Central Texas would make the café a traditional stop to and from games.

Roach also remembers her folks feeding (or giving discounted meals to) football teams, members of the local FFA chapters, the Tarleton baseball team, etc. They have enjoyed financial success in the city of Stephenville, so they were passionate about giving back to their community.

Change of ownership

Restaurant management is an extremely hard family business, so in 1970 Jake Roach decided to sell his “Jake & Dorothy’s Café” to an interested local man. He thought it was the right thing to do at that time. Their only child, Kerry Jane, had been following her father around in the café her entire life. She had been born in 1953 and she was literally raised within the confines of the restaurant. She said it broke her heart when she was in high school and realized that her father was selling her beloved café.

Roach went on to graduate from Stephenville High School in 1972, and then moved on to become a college student at Tarleton. She was about to transfer to Southwest Oklahoma State University in 1977 to pursue her planned career as a pharmacist. However, the new owner of Jake & Dorothy’s had clearly had enough of the restaurant business after only seven years.

He had contacted Jake and asked if he wanted to buy the place back. Jake pulled his daughter into the mix and asked if she would entertain the notion of buying the café back herself. After about five hours, Jake had talked Kerry into becoming the new owner of Jake & Dorothy’s. They signed her papers to her name and he trained her over the next couple of months. She already knew so much about running the eatery from all those years of following her daddy’s footsteps everywhere he went.

So, at the ripe age of 24, Kerry Jane Roach became the young entrepreneur running the show at Jake & Dorothy’s Café in the effort to continue with her family’s legacy. She took over the title of “owner” on June 27, 1977. In fact, she never married nor had children. She explains, “I had no time for a family of my own because I was literally ‘married’ to my job.” Unfortunately, her daddy de ella passed away in 1982, and her mother de ella has been gone since 1997.

Some interesting coffee stories

Dorothy’s brother, Paul Hooks, used to tell a story about the day when a pickup truck and a trailer came barreling down the hill on North Belknap Street right beside the restaurant. All of a sudden, everything came sailing through the kitchen wall, while Paul was cooking waffle fried potatoes. Thankfully, he was not hurt, just a little shook up. He figured he would be able to be off work for a couple of days while the kitchen repairs and walls were finished. But no such luck! The show went on as usual after a tarp was placed over the large opening, and the cooking went right on.

Roach tells of an exciting day in 2010 when a severe thunderstorm moved through Erath County. A lightning bolt actually struck their building and shook the window panes so much that she was afraid all the glass was going to shatter. The jolt blew everything electric out for a few minutes, but she recalls, “We never really missed a lick. We just kept on working.”

Look what COVID did to the cafe

At first, once the pandemic hit, it seemed to diminish their regular crowds and their business was somewhat affected. However, they continued on and rebounded by opening a drive-thru window so called-in orders could easily be picked up. This really took up a lot of the slack in their profit margins during the past couple of years.

“What has really hurt our place since the pandemic, is the inability of being able to keep cooks on staff,” Roach said. “Prior to COVID-19, I had nine cooks working for me, now some days I’m lucky to have one to three folks show up to help keep my business running. On most work days, I have 12 to 15 employees that I can count on.”

celebrity customers

“I enjoy knowing so many town folks and talking with them, but I’m always very happy when celebrities of all kinds stop by and eat with us,” Roach said. “Just a couple of weeks ago, singer Tanya Tucker came by to grab a bite to eat. Some of our regulars that visit a lot are: Ruth Buzzi (from TV show “Laugh-In”); retired rodeo cowboy Ty Murray; and country singers like Moe Bandy, Lee Roy Parnell, Ricky Skaggs and Michael Martin Murphey.”

Roach collects some interesting autographed items and displays them inside the café.

The biggest honor of all Over the years, Jake & Dorothy’s Café has been honored in several magazines such as Texas Monthly, Texas Highways Magazine, Texas Farm & Ranch, etc. But Roach says that she is so excited to have been named Dave Campbell’s Football Magazine’s “Best Game Day Grubb of 2022”. She is thrilled with the award, especially to be known in her city of Stephenville where they have over 165 eating places for the people to choose from.

She loves her customers so much that she offers $1 hamburgers every Tuesday night. As a traveling reporter, I have not come across a cheaper hamburger anywhere, and the meat is thick and juicy and quite a bargain for the consumers. The place really fills up on Tuesday evenings.

Roach has been managing and overseeing the café for almost 45 years now. In fact, they recently celebrated their 74th year in business with special food deals on June 10-12.

Their newest menu boasts: “Everyone at the restaurant carries on the tradition of Texas kindness and Stephenville hospitality. That is Stephenville and the Texas Way at Jack & Dorothy’s Café.”

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