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Thoma Dairy Bar Cafe has long tradition of good food and friendly service

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 08/21/2013 7:52 AM

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GARNAVILLO, Iowa — The Thoma family has served customers at the Dairy Bar Cafe in Garnavillo since 1948.

The original lunch counter, stools and soda fountain are still in use, and current owner Rory Thoma said people who lived in Garnavillo in the 1950s and '60s marvel at how it looks just like they remember it.

While Rory, 55, values tradition, he also tries to keep up with changes.

"Times change, and even people's eating habits change," he said. "It can be a struggle, but I like it."

Rory's parents Keith and Ilo Thoma had a dairy where they bottled milk and made different flavors of ice cream. Because of community need, they added a small lunch counter. In 1961, they bought Keith's grandmother's grocery store next door, annexed it onto the dairy bar, quit the dairy business and opened a full-service cafe.

Rory and his wife, Theresa, took over from his parents in July 1993. He grew up helping in the cafe and attended a food service program at Kirkwood Community College. He was a cook on a tow boat on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers for a few years. He cooked all the meals for a crew of 12.

Theresa has decorated the dining room with historic memorabilia from Rory's family including signs from "Mrs. Thoma's Grocery Store," a 1978 calendar from the Dairy Bar and old family photos. Rory's great-grandmother's brother-in-law, Charlie Thoma, owned a tavern next door to the grocery. The original Thoma Dairy Bar building was once a meat market and tallow shop, and it also was owned by a Thoma.

Rory's parents still live in Garnavillo. Theresa is a home-health worker.

Rory enjoys serving people food and getting their feedback. He often has customers' orders on the grill before they have even ordered.

"People like that," he said.

Being close to the Mississippi River, Thoma's has many customers who have cabins. They come from Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Des Moines to spend the weekend.

"I like to give them a welcome home each spring," he said.

Thoma's has a Sunday buffet from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. A noon special is offered weekdays with a breakfast special on weekends. Lunch specials change every day with no set schedule except for reubens on Tuesdays and Thursdays and beef taco salad on Wednesdays. Rory makes biscuits and gravy on weekends.

Cheryl Wirkler worked at Thoma's while she was in high school and came back about three years ago. She cooks, makes all the pies and waits on customers. Her children, Shawn, 16, and Shannon, 14, also work at the Dairy Bar. She often decides on noon specials.

"Rory tells everyone that they'll get something exotic when I'm doing the special," Wirkler said with a grin.

Fried ham steak with cheesy potatoes, grilled chicken and fruit salad, spaghetti, beef stroganoff and beef stew are some of her offerings.

"I'm more the meat and potatoes guy," Rory said.

He peels his own potatoes for mashed potatoes, and nearly everything is made from scratch. His potato salad is popular, and customers enjoy his vegetable beef and bean soups and chili.

Rory continues a spring buffet held on a Thursday and Friday in mid-April that his father started to celebrate the opening of the dining room. He serves pork hocks and sauerkraut, ribs, beef or pork roast, ham and fish or shrimp.

Buying local when available is a tradition that started with Rory's dad who bought milk from area farmers for his dairy. Rory buys vegetables from growers in the summer and gets locally-raised eggs when he can.

Thoma's has all-you-can drink coffee for 50 cents. People often tell Rory he should raise the price.

"I think it brings people in," he said. "Some people come for coffee and chit chat every day. This is a social gathering place."