By BRENNA GRITEMAN
PANDORA — Roland Etter bounds into Sara Beth’s Beauty Shoppe and, upon spotting the tiny, white-haired woman seated in the chair, asks, “How ya doin’ Grandma? You stayin’ out of the communion wine?”
Velma Pope, 95, just laughs and shakes her head. She’s been a customer since the shop opened in 1961 and is no doubt used to Roland’s ribbing. (She has, by the way, been staying out of the communion wine.)
His wife is Sara Beth, and for decades, the couple has lived in the apartment conveniently lodged between the salon — their kitchen door leads into the rear of the beauty shop — and his business, Pandora’s Lunch Box. Walking out a second kitchen door and across a small porch, Roland jokes about his “commute to work,” noting it’s especially treacherous in the winter months.
About four steps later, we step inside the Lunch Box.
The restaurant has been serving what Roland calls “fast food in a slow town” since 1975. It’s a hot spot for locals who like to gather over breakfast and lunch specials like pot roast, beef stew and Saturday morning’s famous biscuits and gravy while working to solve the world’s problems.
In regards to those problems, new owner Nancy Hovest notes, “We still have them at the end of the day.” It’s just one more thing that keeps them coming back.
“You just get a book out”
Roland and Sara Beth Etter were sweethearts in Pandora-Gilboa High School’s Class of 1960. They’re both in their early 70s now and, cumulatively, have been doing business in this Putnam County village for 96 years.
With a population just over 1,100, it’s safe to say plenty of the residents of Pandora have dined at the Lunch Box or sat in one of Sara Beth’s chairs.
“Your regulars become like family,” Roland says.
It makes the couple’s retirement, which came Saturday, April 2, all the more bittersweet.
“There are a few things I may miss,” Roland says, his usually jovial voice becoming serious for a moment as he recalls all the students and nieces and nephews that have worked alongside him at the restaurant in the past 40 years. One employee in particular comes to mind and brings the grin back to his face. A little girl, maybe 5 or 6 at the time, was dining at the Lunch Box and observing Roland closely. She said to her mom, exasperated, “He even picks on grandmas!”
“She later came to work for us,” Roland says of that girl.
It was Sara Beth who came up with the brilliant idea to connect the formerly vacant building on Main Street to her salon, while constructing an apartment in the middle. She explains simply, “We (the town) had a couple other different restaurants and they closed and there was no place else in town to get something to eat.”
She’s been happy to spend the majority of her time at the beauty shop through the years, helping out at the restaurant “just in a pinch,” and notes things just came together through trial and error.
“We realized the same people are coming (regularly) — you can’t just have hamburgers,” she says. “He really hadn’t cooked much in those early days. He just said, ‘What’s so hard about it? You just get a book out.’ ”
It’s a theory that proved pretty spot on, as Roland became a natural in the kitchen. Sara Beth says he makes great soups and lasagna, while he says, “I enjoy fixing and serving breakfast.”
The one problem with breakfast, of course, is the restaurant opens at 6 a.m., meaning his alarm goes off each morning at 4:45. It’s one thing he’s not afraid to admit he’s looking forward to in his retirement — sleeping until a more reasonable hour. Also on the agenda are traveling and trout fishing at the lake house in Arkansas.
As for Sara Beth, she’ll be working a few days at the salon through the month of April — and then maybe even a little longer. It’s hard to walk away from the business she’s been running her entire life, despite what her children have been telling her for years.
“They think a long time ago we should have retired,” she says.”‘Oh, you should just enjoy life.’ But we’re enjoying it.
“I always said, ‘When God wants me to retire I’ll retire. When it’s time for me I will. And when it’s time I’ll know it.’ It’s that time now.”
“I’m gonna be cooking.”
If you order a slice of pie with whipped cream at Pandora’s Lunch Box, Nancy Hovest will see to it that it smiles back at you.
“I just enjoy playing with food in general. You know, you make happy faces on pies.”
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Friday and the breakfast crowd has mostly cleared out of Pandora’s Lunch Box. Hovest, the new owner of the entire trifecta of salon, apartment and restaurant, is behind the counter looking out across the dining room. A customer stops in to pick up a carryout order and Hovest describes to her the “happy butterflies” she’s feeling.
“I have been waiting for this for 4 1/2 years and I feel very blessed that it’s finally happening,” she says.
Hovest has worked at the Lunch Box for 16 years, while also working full-time as a dispatcher in Putnam County. She’ll retire herself at the end of April after 30-and-a-half years, then turn her full attention to her new business venture.
“I’ve always told people I’m gonna be busy in my retirement. I’m gonna be cooking,” she says.
Roland and Sara Beth are at ease knowing the salon and the diner will go to someone they consider family, and Hovest is happy to take over two established, beloved gathering places that will require minimal reimagining. There is, of course, the matter of the name: Sara Beth’s Beauty Shoppe.
“I wasn’t too original when I chose the name. I was just out of high school and just out of beauty school,” its namesake says with a laugh.
The salon will soon go by the name Pandora’s Beauty and Barber Shop. Other than that, Hovest has no intentions of making major changes at either business, although she does have high hopes of expanding the Lunch Box’s catering services.
“Roland’s done such a wonderful job over 40 years that I’m just gonna have to tweak a few things,” she says. “It’s going to be a whirlwind of good changes.”