Linda Slavi, a waitress at Smitty’s Pancake and Steak House, once complimented one of her customers on the scent of his aftershave. Soon, the elderly gentleman began coming in regularly and throwing on an extra splash of aftershave just for her. When his health began to deteriorate, he moved to Salt Lake City. But then one day, he showed at the restaurant again, this time in a wheelchair. “I said, ‘What are you doing here?'” Linda remembers. “He told me, ‘I came here to have you wait on me one more time before I die, and I put on a splash of aftershave just for you.’ Two days later, he passed away.”
That probably doesn’t sound like your typical dining experience, and there’s an obvious reason for that: Smitty’s, the little restaurant by the river, isn’t your typical restaurant. Instead of the drive-thru window, Smitty’s gives you the friendliest service in town. Instead of the paper-bagged burger, you get delicious food from a menu that doesn’t shift with the fads. Instead of lots of marketing to get you to eat something you shouldn’t, you get a place where the food and the service speak for themselves and keep you coming back.
Yet 40 years ago, Smitty’s was an unremarkable franchise restaurant like the dozens of others you might visit on a weekend evening. Then, in 1971, Leo and Cleo Werner, a factory worker and a waitress fromWashingtonState, bought the restaurant, and that’s when it took a turn for the legendary. The Werners knew succeeding would take more than an investment of time or money. Instead, they brought three ingredients that made their restaurant great and solidified its place as one of the pillars of Idaho Falls:
Labor of Love
“[Leo and Cleo] would be here to open at 5 a.m., and then they would stay to do the janitorial work after it closed at 9 p.m.,” says their granddaughter, Katrina Lott. “They worked from sunup to sundown to establish their business.”
Eventually, the Smitty’s franchise became Perkins, leaving the Werners to fend for themselves. But Leo and Cleo had a different strategy: earning and keeping customer loyalty. Between waiting tables, Cleo took the time to meet and talk with every customer who walked through the door. Those who arrived to be customers would leave as friends.
“People would come here just to see my grandparents,” Katrina says. “Grandma would go from table to table just talking with everybody.”
With that friendly atmosphere, Smitty’s quickly became a mainstay of Idaho Falls restaurants. Each day, it was flooded with customers: 800-900 each morning and 800-900 each night. Day after day, the same customers came back for more, some even lining up before the restaurant opened at 6 a.m., but Cleo kept meeting everyone and helping with whatever needed to be done.
“[Leo and Cleo] were awesome people,” Linda says. “They never asked you to do anything that they weren’t doing right along side you. If somebody needed help in the dishpit, Leo was washing dishes. The only thing he couldn’t fix in here was refrigeration, and he was working on that when he passed on.”
Resting on Grandma Cleo’s hip, Katrina was taking silent notes on how to make people feel at home, how to live, and how to do business. At 14, Katrina took her first job at the restaurant as a “sappy,” someone who fills condiments for the servers. Two years later, she began bussing and seating customers, and five or six years after that, she started waiting tables. “I don’t know anything besides Smitty’s” Katrina says. “I love it; I love to come to work here. It makes me really proud to be a part of something my grandparents worked so hard for. I’ve never worked anywhere else.”
In 2007, Cleo passed away and left the restaurant to her children and grandchildren who shared her passion for connecting with customers. Now, with Cleo’s spirit alive in her business, the family is working hard to maintain the Smitty’s legacy in a market where they’re fast becoming the little guy. But regardless of what the competition brings to the table, Smitty’s will always have love, loyalty and a legacy that give them a serious advantage over the competition.
The staff of Smitty’s Pancake and Steak House welcomes you to Idaho Falls, Idaho, and we hope you enjoy your stay!