When Guy Fieri came to town last spring, he promised that the Food Network program he hosts, "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” would make a major impact on the restaurants visited. That’s a promise you can count as kept. Triple D visited six local restaurants back then: Nic’s Grill, Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, Ingrid’s Kitchen, Mama E’s Wings and Waffles, Eischen’s Bar in Okarche and The Diner in Norman.
The DinerWhile each of these eateries report substantial increases in business since their segments ran, one restaurant has met with tragedy. Business has been brisk at The Diner in Norman, but that’s nothing new. What is new is the ownership. Owner Mark Amspacher died last month at age 56, and his daughter Bonnie is running the cafe with the help of a resolute staff and community support that she describes as humbling and inspiring. "It’s just been tremendous,” Bonnie said. "I grew up here, and I know what a great town it is, but the amount of support has really made me appreciate it so much more.” Mark Amspacher grew up in Norman, too, in and around the family grocery store. A veteran of several kitchens in the metro area, Amspacher landed in front of the griddle at The Diner in the early 1990s. When previous ownership was unable to keep up with the taxes, he was out of a job. It wasn’t for long, though, as local attorney Ben Benedum approached him about buying the place himself. With Benedum’s free legal assistance, Amspacher bought The Diner in 1996. When producers from Food Network called, it validated the efforts Mark Amspacher put into keeping alive the tiny downtown cafe with more than 100 years of history. "I’m really glad he lived long enough to get the recognition,” Bonnie said. She also said producers from Food Network made a charitable donation on her father’s behalf when they heard news of his death. Bonnie said Juan Herrerra is still cooking as he has since her dad took over the place, and they plan to keep The Diner open as long as people are willing to come in for breakfast and lunch. "The show has definitely increased our business,” she said. "But we don’t have much capacity, so the biggest difference is the new faces we’ve seen.”
Nic’s GrillThat’s a phenomenon Justin Nicholas, owner of Nic’s Grill, can relate to. With fewer than 20 seats and a faithful group of regular customers, a bump in capacity isn’t possible. "If you try pouring five gallons of milk into a one gallon jug, you’re still only going to get a gallon of milk,” Nicholas said. "But we’ve definitely seen a lot of new faces. "I had a lot of regular customers before, but now I’ve got a whole new set of regular customers.” He also said he’s met people from all around. "I just had three different groups come in who said they drove in from out of state to see the Elton John/Billy Joel concert and that they saw us on the show.” Fieri said in an interview after filming that if Nic’s didn’t have picnic tables by the time he got back, he was bringing them himself. "I really like being able to talk to people, getting to know them and how they like their food, who likes extra onions and who doesn’t. Money isn’t everything.” Nicholas said revenue has definitely been up, which has allowed him to invest back into the business. "If Guy Fieri or any of those Food Network folks calls me at 3 a.m. with a flat tire, I’m there,” he said.
Mama E’sThe feeling is mutual at Mama E’s, where Stephanie and Keith Patterson make some of the city’s most beloved soul food. "We’ve had people visit us from all over the world,” Stephanie Patterson said. "We just had some people in here from New York, Detroit, Germany.” But there was one tense moment before cameras started rolling with Fieri thanks to some signs Stephanie Patterson posted, alerting the public about the Food Network’s visit. "When he got here he said, ‘Who posted all those signs around town?’ And I said, ‘Ummm, I did.’ And he said, ‘Great idea!” Stephanie said the show turned around their business. "We’ve tripled our business since Guy was here,” she said. "It’s truly been a blessing.” The Pattersons are looking for a space to open a second location.
Cattlemen’sNo second location or expansion is sought by the owners of Cattlemen’s Steakhouse. "We’ve got around 300 seats,” owner Dick Stubbs said. Partner David Egan said the show has aired several times, and the difference is with out-of-town visitors. "We’ve found that the show helped us become a destination for people who are traveling cross-country.” Egan said filming at their century-old establishment took much more time than he imagined, but it was a lot of fun. "Initially, they weren’t wanting to do anything on the lamb fries because they’d already done several different places with that kind of specialty. But they’re so popular with customers, they did it anyway.” In fact, Fieri had them out of necessity. "One of our breakfast specialties is beef brains and eggs,” Egan explained. "Guy doesn’t really like eggs, but he tried them out, and then he grabbed the closest thing to him, and it’s lamb fries. So, he was having brains and eggs with a lamb fry chaser.”
Eischen’sThe only thing being chased out at Eischen’s in Okarche was fans. "We got out to there, and they had something like 300 people outside the restaurant cheering,” Fieri said. That’s no surprise to anyone who’s ever made the trip to Okarche for fried chicken; Eischen’s is practically always at capacity. The Eischen’s segment was perhaps the most humorous, with owner Ed Eischen walking Fieri through the limited menu and repeatedly assuring the TV star, "That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Ingrid’s KitchenIngrid’s Kitchen owner Lee Burruss had to wait the longest to see his restaurant featured, but he said it was worth the wait. "Business has more than doubled,” he said. "It’s been a great experience.”