The first thing you notice when you step into Carolyn’s Essenhaus is the sweet, warm aroma of freshly baked bread, loaves and loaves of which have just been pulled out of the oven and are cooling in the back.
Next, you’ll notice the big plates of chicken fried steak and towering slices of lemon meringue pie being bustled out of the kitchen — or the ruffled mauve curtains that decorate the front window and the case full of cinnamon rolls and homemade doughnuts near the cash register.
Then maybe the friendly faces occupying the restaurant’s tables and booths, many belonging to farmers or older residents of this small Amish Mennonite community just an hour’s drive from Wichita.
And you’ll definitely notice owner Carolyn Bontrager, who 30 years ago opened the little restaurant in tiny Arlington, Kansas, population 425. She’s hustling dishes out of the kitchen, greeting customers and checking on tables.
“Doing well here?’ she asks a group of three workers whose burgers have just been delivered to their table.
“Doing good,” one replies, digging into his plate. “Gonna be doing even better pretty quick.”
Carolyn’s Essenhaus (German for Carolyn’s Eating House) will be celebrating its 30th anniversary Thursday through Saturday of next week with specials and giveaways, including a popular contest where customers are notified by tiny slips of paper rolled up in their silverware if they’ve won a free slice of the cafe’s famous pie.
As she prepares for the big milestone, Bontrager is reflecting on the past three decades and the business she built based on old-fashioned made-from-scratch home cooking, word of mouth advertising, and the kitchen skills she developed after years of watching her mother and grandmother at work.
She also is sharing the secret to her longevity, which is as straightforward as her idyllic small-town cafe.
“A lot of it, I think, is you just can’t give up,” she said. “You’re going to have ebb and flow. You have to keep on doing a good job all the time, and you just can’t quit.”
Chicken fried steak and German specials
Bontrager grew up on her family’s farm, where her father, Eldon, moved the family in 1968. Eventually, the family had eight children, and Carolyn was second-to-oldest.
She worked in a variety of restaurant and nursing home kitchens, but Bontrager always dreamed of owning her own restaurant. So in the late 1980s, when the bar and grill on the town’s tiny main drag — just three and a half miles from the family the farm — went out of business, she grabbed the space and remodeled it.
“I got lots of encouragement from the local community to open up something,” she said.
Bontrager filled her menu with home-cooking dishes like chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes and hot sandwiches. Using her family’s longtime pie crust recipe, she’d bake a mess of fruit and cream pies.
On Wednesdays, she served fried chicken. On Fridays, she’d cook up a few popular German Mennonite specials — German sausage and kraut, and vereniki, a traditional steamed dumpling that’s stuffed with cottage cheese and covered in gravy.
She still does all of that today, and she also started a “bakery bar,” which she converts to the salad bar in the afternoon. Starting at 6 a.m., customers can fill boxes with homemade cinnamon rolls, caramel nut rolls, doughnuts, muffins and scones. On Saturdays, there’s also a special German coffee cake called bienenstich, commonly called “bee sting cake,” which is made with yeast dough that’s been split and filled with vanilla pudding then topped with a mixture of butter, sugar, sour cream, coconut flakes and cornflakes. Customers serve themselves from the bar and make their own change.
The restaurant was instantly popular and it would draw local farmers and their hired hands as well as hungry visitors from places like Wichita, Hutchinson, Pratt, Lyons and Sterling.
In 1996, Bontrager was able to expand the restaurant with an addition that afforded her more seating and a walk-in freezer and cooler. Her restaurant was regularly featured in the Hutchinson newspaper, and it was named a finalist in The Kansas Sampler Foundation’s 8 Wonders of Kansas Cuisine project.
All of those articles and accolades now are framed and hanging on the restaurant’s walls next to framed pictures of Kansas grain elevators, kitschy crafts and collectibles, and a white board that announces the day’s home-cooked specials.
All those years, Bontrager was able to keep the restaurant going with the help of her family members, especially her parents. Until 2014, her mother, Mary Ellen, would make all of the pie crust with the help of the “local granddaughters.” Since her mother has slowed down, pie crust duty has been passed to two of Carolyn’s sisters-in-law.
Her father, Eldon, also has always played an active role despite owning a farm and founding Bontrager Custom Cabinets, which sits across Main Street from the cafe. He was always the cafe maintenance man, repairing anything that went wrong. Now he’s 87, but Eldon goes to the cafe every morning at 3:30 a.m. to finish the cafe’s pies and cinnamon rolls.
The first 30 years have gone by quickly — or slowly — depending on what day you ask her, Bontrager said with a laugh.
But she’s loved running the restaurant and playing an important role in her small community. She feels appreciated, too, she says, and as the 30th anniversary approaches, many customers have stopped to thank her for “hanging in there.”
She has no plans to stop anytime soon.
“As long as I have my health and can find my help,” she said, “I don’t have any other plans.”
Where: 104 E. Main in Arlington, about an hour’s drive northwest of Wichita
Hours: 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays
Type of food: Made-from-scratch home cooking, including chicken fried steak, burgers, homemade bread and homemade pie
Specials: Fried chicken is served on Wednesdays. German vereniki and sausage and kraut is served every Friday at dinner and during lunch on the first Friday of the month