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Pancake Pantry: still fluffy at 50

A very tall waitress in acid-washed, high-waist jeans and a blue plaid button-down is taking orders. Her white hair is fluffed like a halo around her face and glasses hang from a strand of beads around her neck. Her plain tan shoes have seen better days, and her dark blue apron has a syrup smudge.

This is Mary Fitzgerald, the 72-year-old waitress at Pancake Pantry. She’s worked at the Hillsboro Village eatery for 29 years and loves getting to know her customers.

“Pancakes are a bonus, but they come here to see me, and I come here and see them,” Fitzgerald said.

The type of sentiment is a shared one at Pancake Pantry. The down-to-earth atmosphere and courteous, efficient service makes customers feel at home, which is the staff’s main focus.

“Servers here know your order and we a lot of have regulars who are on a first-name basis,” said Sharde’ Carney, a manager.

Pancake Pantry line

Line for breakfast at the Pancake Pantry

Carney has seen Pancake Pantry shared across generations, favored by many because of the family-friendly environment. Long-time customers who once brought their kids now bring the grandkids.

“It’s consistency, too, that keeps that family atmosphere going,” Carney said.

And the atmosphere has been going for quite some time now: Pancake Pantry is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2011. It wasn’t the first of its kind, however.

“There are two Pancake Pantry’s in the world,” Carney said. The first is in Gatlinburg, Tenn.  Jim Gurney opened the restaurant in 1960, and the restaurant still claims to be “Tennessee’s first pancake house,” according to its website.

Gurney met Robert “Bob” Baldwin, and in 1961, Baldwin opened the second Pancake Pantry. Both of the restaurants are owned and operated separately, and the only thing they share is their flour.

Baldwin, who’s “Mr. B” to the Pancake Pantry staff, added son David as a partner in 1978. A decade later, David Baldwin bought Pancake Pantry from his father and still owns the restaurant.

Pancake Pantry has changed a bit over the years. They’ve changed their hours to open and close earlier, they’ve tweaked their menus, and the restaurant moved two doors down in 1995, doubling in size to accommodate more of the customers who stand in a line that on weekends stretches around the block, rain or shine.

Pancake Pantry is “not some corporate giant,” Carney said. “It was born and raised here in Nashville.”

The Baldwin family stays very involved in the tradition. Robert Baldwin still has lunch in Pancake Pantry every day and David’s nieces and nephews have worked there in the summer.

With its longevity, atmosphere and menu, it has earned awards from The Tennessean’s Toast of Music City and the Nashville Scene’s “Best of Nashville” awards in 2011.” Pancake Pantry was also featured on the Travel Channel show, “Man v. Food.”

“But we don’t really boast about accolades,” Carney said. “We focus more on making customers regulars.”

So how’s the food?

“So great,” said Rachel Glidden, a Belmont University student and Pancake Pantry patron. “I had crepes with lingonberries inside. It was kind of tangy, but it was just perfect.”

Not everyone was as thrilled with the experience, however. “I’ve come here before and it’s been incredible, but today my pancakes tasted like baking powder,” a customer said to her waitress.

Within 30 seconds, general manager Anthony Mitchell is sitting across the table from the unsatisfied customer. He explains that the pancakes come from a big mix, and she probably just got a part of the mix with a lot of baking soda. Then, Mitchell apologizes and offers the customer a full free meal.

Because everything is made fresh from scratch in Pancake Pantry, including the syrup, the people that come here expect a good product, Fitzpatrick said.

Carney agreed.

“It’s a tourist attraction now, and it’s great that we’ve become a tourist attraction, but we like to focus on our regulars,” the manager said.

And they have plenty of regulars.

Fitzpatrick fondly recalls a young dating couple that regularly used to skip their classes at Belmont to eat at Pancake Pantry. She remembers their names, where they’re from and when they graduated. The waitress even drops her voice a bit to explain the young man’s fight against testicular cancer.

“I really got to know them,” she said.

Most fondly, Fitzpatrick recalls when the young man enlisted her for some help. He wanted to propose to the girl he’d been dating for years in the very restaurant they’d frequented for so long: Pancake Pantry.

“It was just beautiful, the flowers,” the smiling waitress said. It was a success, and the couple later commemorated her with a plaque that still hangs in the dining area.

“It’s just not a job. It makes you feel good when people know you and want to see you,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s in your blood is all it is.”

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