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For 75 years Crouse Café in Indianola, has been the place to go for traditional family food and a place to gather for breakfast, lunch and supper. The Crouse family will host an open house Saturday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. to help celebrate. Family members available for the photo, from left, Rhonda and John Crouse along with Kristin Crouse and Josh Crouse and Jax, Josh's son.

Eating may be a necessity in life, but sharing exceptional food served in a warm, friendly environment is a privilege that Crouse Cafe has been delivering for 75 years.

Crouse Café, 115 E. Salem Ave. in Indianola, has become a beloved landmark when it comes to culinary excellence. For generations, Simpson College kids have made the eatery the place to be on a Sunday to get a malt.

Join the family for an open house Saturday, Nov. 27, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. to help celebrate this milestone.

Crouse Café is owned and operated by John Crouse and his wife Rhonda. He's the grandson of the restaurant’s founders Robert “Bob” and Cleo. A family affair, John’s siblings, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews have all helped run the business.

From hot beef sandwiches, to onion rings and pies, their menu has drawn attention from politicians, celebrities and national publications.

It all started when Cleo and Robert took jobs at the Newton Café, owned by Aunt Fern Jenkins and her husband Marvin, according to a family album that tells the story of the family's journey to becoming a community icon.

The Crouse Café saga officially began with the Heavilin Café on the west side of the square. The name was then changed to the Rocket Café when it moved to West Ashland in 1946.

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There will be plenty of photos and printed news stories available for visitors to see as the Crouse family will host an open house Saturday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. to help celebrate the restaurant's 75th anniversary.

After selling the Rocket, the family ran a small lunch counter on Mulberry Street in Des Moines before heading to Leon, Iowa, when the chance came to run the Chef Café, located across the street from the Leon High School. They lived in Leon from 1950-54 then wound back up in Indianola and again took possession of the Rocket Café. They also briefly ran a café in the Beaverdale area, but road construction made it difficult for customers to reach it.

The first establishment to have the name Crouse Café was located on the north side of the Square on Salem Avenue. Around this time, Cleo got the opportunity to cater food for the Adlai Stevenson presidential campaign, serving up fried chicken and homemade pie. This was to be the first of many occasions the Crouses prepared meals for Democratic campaign stops. A restaurant opened in 1960 in Knoxville, but it was not successful.

Their oldest daughter Bobbie Lou died of cancer in 1959. In 1963, Nickie graduated from Simpson, Ruthie became a waitress and Richard Crouse died of heart failure. Also that year, the restaurant sold to their son, Richard Jr. and wife Bonnie Crouse. They put their children Bob “Bobby”, John and Cindy Babbitt to work at the restaurant from the time they could walk.

“It took away a lot of our time from home because we’ve always worked on holidays and weekends and did a lot of catering at one time,” John said.

John’s earliest memory working in the business was carrying pop bottles. He bussed tables to earn money to purchase a season pass to the pool. In 1970, the café moved to its present location. John and Rhonda got married in 1978. She’s been working at the café since she was 15 years old.

“The menu used to be very simple,” Rhonda said. “And now we almost feel like we have too much.”

Customers, and yes some people eat at the café daily, can taste the memories. Former Warren County auditor Beverly Dickerson, who died in 2018, shared such a memory with the family that they have kept written down.

Dickerson told of meeting the late senator Ted Kennedy while visiting Washington, D.C. When she told him she was from Indianola, he asked how the onion rings were at the Crouse Café. Indeed, Senator Kennedy had made a campaign stop at the eatery in January 1980. The baby included in the newspaper’s coverage of the event is John and Rhonda’s son Josh, who now is head cook. He started out his career in the restaurant business peeling potatoes and carrots for a dime.

“There weren’t child labor laws back then,” Josh said with a laugh.

In 1987, the café passed into the hands of John, Bobby and Cindy.

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Kristin Crouse gathered plenty of photos and printed news stories available for visitors to see during an open house Saturday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. to celebrate the cafe's 75th anniversary.

“After mom passed away, we bought Cindy out because she was really just driving back and forth,” Rhonda said. “Then we bought Bobby out in 1991 because he got a good offer from Hy-Vee to be deli manager.”

Bobby’s daughters Heidi Crouse and Abbie Myers have also worked at the café, along with his granddaughter Marley Crooks. Cindy’s son Dan Terrell and his wife Dee have too. Their aunt Ruth Englebart still helps out as cashier. John and Rhonda’s daughter Kristin and granddaughter Aleigha Strange also have donned aprons and helped out where they’ve been needed.

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The cherry pie at Crouse Cafe got a new claim to fame after it was named one of the top 50 pies in the country by People magazine.

The café has appeared on a list of the 100 foods you should eat before you die and won a Travel Iowa online vote a few years ago. In 2019, the family learned that People magazine wanted to include them in a spread featuring the best pie in every state.

And, about that pie.

Cleo Crouse started making pies when Crouse’s first opened and she also ran the business. Later Nadine Downey took over the pie making. She turned it over to Bobby and then to Rhonda. John tried his hand at baking pies for what seemed like an eternity, but was actually for about a month.

When asked about the recipes, they shake their heads. Nothing is written down.

Love is what makes the pies taste like they do. Rhonda said piecrusts are made from scratch, they don’t use canned pie filling and for cream pies, the pudding is made from scratch.

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The Crouse family keeps a scrapbook full of stories about the history of the cafe, which is marking 75 years this weekend.

John said a few years back, when the restaurant was closed for the day, someone came knocking at the door. He later realized it was Susan Sarandon and a film crew wanting to come inside for a bite to eat while on location.

At noon on St. Patrick’s Day 2020, all restaurants had to cease serving food. Crouse Café closed for April and May 2020. They reopened that June but found carryout orders didn’t begin to make up for the loss in revenue.

“It started out pretty slow because we had to do the 50 percent capacity,” Rhonda said.

The public rallied, and people were generous with their tips.

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Bobby Crouse chats with customer Mike Streeter as Bobby prepares for the morning buffet at Crouse Cafe in Indianola in 2019.
 

For the last several years, except in 2020, the café has prepared a Thanksgiving Day meal. While the café used to be open daily, a few years ago, they decided to close the cafe's doors on Mondays.

Despite the hard work and personal sacrifices, operating the café has been a rewarding experience for the family. Rhonda said her mother used to say she didn’t understand Rhonda and her sister's desire to forgo a social life to work at a busy café.

“I said mom, this is our social life. You get to know your customers and families and get really close to them,” Rhonda recalled.

Hours of operation are Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sundays 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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(3) comments

Womenmatter

With our families moving out of town, Lois Enga, Barb Martsching and I Had a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at Crouse Cafe. Just like home. It was very good and we appreciate the whole family being there to make Us all feel welcome. Thank you John and Rhonda!

Mark Staff
Mark

We are so fortunate to have Crouse Cafe in Indianola serving some of the best family style foods. The tradition of serving great food with personal, comfortable service has attracted presidential candidates, local working families and farm families, tourist and foodie experts from all around Central Iowa and the nation. Breakfast, lunch and supper; dine in or take out - keep on doing what you're doing.

MMVernon

Crouse Cafe is a real gift to the community. So is the Independent Advocate. Thanks for this historical article and the ongoing enlightening articles you put out.

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