A Gainesville landmark for more than 70 years 2011: Skeeter’s Cafe becomes Deb & Lou’s
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part story sharing the history of the landmark restaurant that has operated on the west side of the Gainesville square since the mid-1940s. From 1946 until 2011, the restaurant was known as Skeeter’s Cafe, named for the late Frank “Skeeter” Stevens, who bought the business with his wife, the former Faye Blackburn, after returning home from World War II. Last week’s story reported how the cafe’s name continued after Skeeter retired and his daughter, Beverly Darnell, and then Sherry Dotson owned the business. This week’s conclusion to the cafe’s history reports on the most recent years when it was leased from Dotson in 2011 by Lou and Deb Smith Garcia, who changed the cafe’s name to Deb & Lou’s. The couple announced recently that they would not reopen the cafe after closing it due to Gov. Mike Parson’s stay-at-home order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lou and Deb Smith Garcia are originally from California, but they’ve considered the Ozarks their home for a long time. In 2011, they leased Skeeter’s Cafe from Sherry Turner Dotson and renamed the business Deb & Lou’s.
“I moved here 25 years ago with my four little kids to start fresh,” Deb said recently, telling the story of her arrival.
Her parents, Jonas and Jennie Smith, had left California to retire here. “They’d been here about six months, and my husband and I were having difficulties back in California,” she said. “I missed my mom and dad…. We had all lived right there together for so long where I was born and raised. And one day I just picked up the phone and said, ‘Come and get me and the kids.’ And I think they were there in two days! They loaded us up – the seven of us in their Oldsmobile. I left everything behind. Just brought pictures and some clothes, and came here and rebuilt my life,” Deb said.
She got a job waitressing at Rudy’s Village Inn in Ava. “Then I learned to be a grill cook. And then I became manager – and hired Louis to do dishes and cook. That’s where we met, and we’ve been together almost 20 years now.”
At first, Deb and the kids, who ranged in age from preschool to sixth grade, lived with her parents in Price Place, Arkansas, just south of Pontiac. “We had to drive the kids to the state line to meet the bus so they could go to Gainesville to school,” she said.
“We didn’t know anybody, but people were helpful. Sandra Strong was the secretary at the school. She was the first one who really befriended me. She was so helpful in welcoming me into the community,” she said.
Deb signed up for Food Stamps and a little later moved out of her parents’ home and settled her family in West Ridge Apartments and then into a home at Noble.
Shortly after Louis joined her at the Ava restaurant, the owner died and the business closed. But “Sherry [Dotson] was running an ad for a cook at Skeeter’s,” she said.
Deb worked for Sherry for five and a half years, and later Lou started working at Skeeter’s too. The couple eventually got a house together; they married a few years ago.
After the restaurant fire and the subsequent move to the new building, the two of them decided to change jobs. They worked in other area restaurants; then Deb worked for seven years at what is now The Center and Lou also worked in construction and at the Giles & Kendall cedar plant. That continued until 2011, when Sherry also decided to change careers and become an insurance adjustor.
Deb said, “Sherry called up Lou and said, ‘I’m going to shut down. Are you interested in renting?’”
Sherry gave them the key to the business, and seven days later, on Nov. 2, 2011, they opened Deb & Lou’s Cafe after deciding to retire the name Skeeter’s.
“I believe the first person to walk through the door that morning was Leroy Davidson, and then Lemuel Allen. They gave me that first dollar,” she said.
Those men were two of the “regulars” who strolled into Deb & Lou’s almost every morning to settle into the back table for coffee, breakfast and conversation.
“Joe Strong, Danny Pleasant, Allen Douglas, Jeff Nash, Martie Hambelton, Steve Hicks … they were ‘the boys,’” Deb said. “They would all usually order breakfast – some of them had the same thing every day.”
She can still recite the breakfast history for one of the men. “Every morning for the last eight years, he’s eaten the same breakfast every morning: scrambled eggs, sausage and toast – except in the last six months, he started adding bacon and a biscuit.”
When the loyal customer came back for lunch, “he never ate anything except hamburger and fries, except on Fridays, he would have fish. I never saw the man eat anything else,” Deb said fondly.
The breakfast bunch was appreciative of the restaurant and its staff. “They were very good tippers,” Deb said.
The locals were joined by out-of-towners who made Deb & Lou’s a favorite lunch spot. “People would come from Mountain Home and West Plains,” she said. “One elderly couple came pretty regularly, and I got to know them. They came from right outside Springfield and would drive down to eat at the cafe at least once or twice a month. Another little couple came from Branson. Their daughter lives in West Plains, and we were their pitstop for breakfast or lunch when they were driving to see her.”
Deb’s daughter, special education teacher Nicole Martinez, also lives in West Plains with her three sons, and Deb’s son Ryan Hardison lived in Branson. “So we started making chic-chat and got to know each other,” Deb said of the restaurant patrons.
A family business – again
Like the children of previous owners, Deb and Lou’s children – Ryan, Nicole, Josh, Brandon and Veronica – all helped in the restaurant in some way at various times. To Deb and Lou, their regular customers became family too, joining them and their staff, including Juanita Luna, who had waitressed in the cafe for several years and stayed on when the cafe changed hands, for daily conversation, joking and sometimes, love and sympathy.
When Deb’s son Ryan died in 2018, “this community just — they just wrapped their arms around us and were there for us. People here are always willing to help. We live in a tight community. And we’ve tried to help those in need too,” she said.
The work was rewarding but rarely easy. Deb & Lou’s Cafe survived for eight years, but in the last six months, as sales decreased and expenses steadily encroached on profits, they begin to think about giving up the business. And then the pandemic hit, including a stay-home order issued by Missouri Gov. Mike Parson.
“COVID really took a toll,” Deb said. “We tried to do the to-go thing for one day, but we only made $150 that day. Lou said, ‘This isn’t going to work.’”
So the decision was made to close completely during the shutdown. And when the shutdown order was lifted, the Garcias reluctantly decided not to reopen.
“We’re heartbroken,” Deb said. “We’re just so emotionally attached to the cafe and to so many people. Everyone could say, ‘If you would have done this or that,’ but we honestly tried as hard as we could to make it work. There was so much to look at to make this decision. Like, even getting product. Meat prices are up. We were paying $1.69 a pound for hamburger at the beginning of March. Last time I looked, it was $3-something. Two months ago, a case of eggs was $16. Now it’s $39. We knew we would have to raise prices, and people wouldn’t like that.”
On April 27, Deb posted this message on her Facebook page: “Lou and I are very grateful for all of our customers and the support of the community the last 8 years. We recently have took a huge hit to our business as a lot of businesses & people have because of Covid 19. It has drained us financially, with a heavy heart and tears in our eye we have made the hardest decision … Deb & Lou’s Cafe will not reopen. We want to thank everyone and all of the workers we have had through the years for making us who we are.”
Among the many responses of sympathy and dismay, customer Seth Miller put it best, Deb said. “He told me, ‘It’s like one of your loved ones passing in the community.’ I agree. I do feel like we’re in mourning.”
Meanwhile, Lou has been working for Wilson Freight, the transportation division of Wilson Industries (formerly Bryant Plastics). And Deb is staying home with Emree, the 8-year-old granddaughter they’re raising, while considering future opportunities.
Sherry Dotson says she’s hoping someone will step up to buy the fully equipped restaurant. She’s had a few inquiries, she said, but so far no definite plans have been made. (For more information, call Sherry at 417-543-0217.)
As news of the restaurant’s closing spread, Deb’s daughter Nicole Martinez posted a message on Facebook that describes not only the role Deb & Lou’s played in Gainesville’s last eight years; it also describes the little cafe’s meaning to the town for the last 74 years.
The restaurant, Nicole wrote, has “provided jobs, participated in fundraisers, made meals for families in times of need, supported other small businesses, and most importantly built connections. The restaurant has always been a place to come together and enjoy company and, of course, amazing down home cookin’.”