Ten years after closing, Pinder’s still one of Culver’s most beloved eateries

It seem hard to believe, but it's been 10 years (or will be, this fall) since Ed and Lora Pinder and family closed the doors for the last time on one of the most beloved local eateries in most residents' memories. Ed told the Citizen at the time it had "even older men my age" crying. "There were lots of tears," he said.

And no wonder. While everyone surely had a favorite dish at Pinder's Restaurant (at the confluence of Ohio, Main, and Davis Streets, home of the Marmont Grille today), its most endearing quality emanated from the family itself, whose mixture of small-town friendliness, humor, and genuine care for others made Pinder's the proverbial place where everybody really did know your name – or seemed to. . While the term "family restaurant" is a stylistic designation, it applied at Pinder's on multiple levels: the family operated it, and the entire community, by extension, seemed part of the family.

Ed and Lora Pinder met in high school in nearby Fulton, Indiana. They began dating towards the end of their junior year and were married in January, 1955. Ed taught math and physics in Kewanna for seven years, after attending Purdue and graduating from Manchester College. While teaching, he received a National Science Foundation grant to work on his Master's degree at Middle Tennessee University.

When Culver Military Academy assistant math department head Al Donnelly suffered a heart attack in the middle of the term, Ed -- who had taught advanced algebra already at the Culver Naval School for a few years -- was called and asked to join the CMA faculty, which he did for the next five years.

"They treated me well," he recalls. "The kids were great."

He didn't enjoy barracks inspection and missed the camaraderie with parents he'd experienced in public education, so Ed spent his last eight teaching years at Culver Community High School, winding up that part of his career in 1977.

Lora well remembers the fateful day the seed of taking on a restaurant was planted for the family.

"Ed was umpiring a ball game," she recalls of a 1972 conversation, "and Wally Speery, who ran a restaurant (at the future site of Pinder's) said, 'Ed, you should buy a restaurant.' Wally wanted to go fishing in Texas! His wife did all the work in the restaurant, and she didn’t want to sell. He talked to us a number of times. Our kids were getting the age -- Liz and Julie -- where it would be kind of nice to have a summer job.”

Any thoughts of restaurant ownership were put on hold when the Pinders’ daughters' friend Johnny Dewitt called and said daughters Julie and Cheryl had been hit by a car.

"They were both covered with sheets," remembers Ed. "Lora said, 'Please God, don't let them be dead.'"

Both parents today laugh at the memory of Julie's first words, once the sheet was moved aside: "Is my face okay?"

After some extensive surgery and recovery, both girls -- and their faces -- were indeed okay, and the family began to turn its attention to the possibility of running an eatery, in earnest.

In the future Pinder's building, Sperry's had started as a bait shop, notes Ed Pinder Jr., which also served sandwiches.

"They had a window," he adds, "and no seating. Margeurite Sperry made sandwiches and people liked them, so they expanded into the kitchen. Sperry's was the name of the restaurant. They had had it for nine years when we bought it (in 1973). Sperrys built that building, and they owned that property. They also expanded into the kitchen and had that little dining room, which they put on after five or six years. It seated about 40."

In those days, says Ed Sr., Culver's dining needs were filled primarily by the Culver Inn (on the Academies' campus), A&W Root Beer Stand, M & M Restaurant on Main Street, Three Sisters on State Road 17, Jobos Pizza on Lake Shore Drive, the Dewitt's bowling alley, and the Corner Tavern, also on Main, which would be Pinder's main competition.

By the fall of 1972, Ed and Lora arranged a family gathering.

"We got the kids together," says Lora, "and said, 'If we get this restaurant, you will be wherever we are. None of them ever reneged (on agreeing to it)."

The family called Ed's parents, Fay and Herald, who at around 60 years old were ready for a break from their work at Winamac Coil Spring in Kewanna, where Lora had also been working in the office. They were able to move into the house adjacent to the restaurant itself, where they lived during their tenure at Pinder's (Ed and Lora have lived in their home on Lake Shore Drive for the past 46 years).

The family began to advertise not only locally, but in surrounding communities, leading up to and past the March 1, 1973 opening of Pinder's. They used their network of friends and acquaintances in Culver, Fulton, Rochester, and Kewanna, not to mention the many students Ed had taught. So effective were their efforts, says Lora, that one longtime Culverite complained he couldn't get a seat with "all these people" at the restaurant.

Later that year, Lora found juggling bookkeeping at the factory in Kewanna, and restaurant work, too demanding, so she came on at Pinder's full-time.

"Sperry's had a very successful restaurant when we bought it," she notes. "I've cooked all my life, and Margeurite helped teach us to cook. The only thing we changed when we came in was, they had a church-style coffee pot that sat there all day, and the coffee was never good. I had a coffee service come in so we had good coffee.”

Margeurite Sperry, who stayed on initially to cook, made a variety of salads including bean and pasta, and many Pinder’s recipes used over the years were hers, says Lora.

“The fried chicken batter had to be just the perfect thickness. She stayed with us and was watching the business grow."

"We doubled our business about four years in a row," Ed adds. "We hit a certain peak with the number of tables we had."

The iconic Pinder's logo, which graced not only the restaurant but numerous advertisements and billboards over the years, was the result of a trip to the library to research the family crest from Ireland, with a griffon added alongside. A Burr Oak man came up with the memorable lettering and initial sign, which Ed says eventually fell apart and was replaced by "a pretty hokey sign that flashed at night!"
Initially, the restaurant's famous chicken was the most popular dish, with "all you can eat" white fish on Fridays and chicken on Saturdays gaining quickly.

"Everything was fried at first," Lora explains, "and we'd have luncheon and dinner specials: home cooking type things like chicken and noodles, beef ribs, meat loaf, and hot beef sandwiches. We made a big turkey breast and used the broth for the gravy."
Food preparation was a family affair as well, she notes.

"Peggy made all the stuffing, Julie did the salads and made cookies. Peggy did a lot of desserts: cakes and cheesecakes, and some salads after Julie moved away. Julie made most of the dressings."

Ed and Lora's future daughter-in-law Peggy was 14 when she started working at Pinder's, which at the time was just four years into its existence. Future husband Eddie (Ed Jr.) had started there at age 10, the first year. While the two knew each other from school, Eddie says they "really got to know each other while working at the restaurant. We dated six months before we got married, but we worked together four years before we were married!"

"We even worked on our wedding day," laughs Peggy, who also worked the day before the couple's children were born, something Lora did the day before giving birth to daughter Liz.

"We had to get married on Sundays," says Julie, "because we had to work around the restaurant schedule! The guys we married had to be pretty good sports."

"The kids all grew up working," says Ed, adding those "kids" grew up -- in the restaurant -- to have their own children, who played there after closing.

"Our whole life was there," says Julie. "Showers, family get-togethers."

In fact, laughs Julie, even today, "Whenever I have an anxiety dream, it's always a restaurant dream!"

By the time Pinder's closed, Ed and Lora had four grandchildren working for them, in addition to nieces and nephews. Both Eddie and Peggy's son and Julie's son complained when the restaurant closed too soon for them to work there as well.

The Pinders' biological family was surrounded by a family of regular, adoring customers as well, including some who dined there weekly and even nightly.

"Our customers became our family," Lora muses. "On birthdays or holidays or when there were new babies, our customers were so generous.
A quarter of the restaurant's business was the Sunday after-church crowd, Ed notes, and some Sundays people would be lined up to the end of the sidewalk.

"I'd see people coming across the lot and would start getting particular dishes ready," smiles Ed. "I knew what they wanted."

Besides Culver and surrounding communities, customers came fairly frequently from as far away as South Bend, Logansport, and Kokomo. That changed to some degree when large buffets opened in South Bend, Ed says.

Mother's Day was the busiest day of the year, and Ed remembers 568 people coming through the restaurant in the course of their first Mother's Day open.

Two or three years into the business, Pinder's added a salad bar. Within five years, the restaurant had grown by two dining rooms, and after its first 15 years, the popular buffet was added.

"I'd have 40 orders back there," Ed recalls, "and that was hard. It was about wearing me out. I just had two boys (working) back there. It was tough to do off the menu, and the buffet made it a little easier. Then maybe only half the people ordered off the menu."

Only in the last 10 to 12 years was central air conditioning added.
Carpenter Harry Sult did most of the building's construction over the years, Ed and Lora explain.

And the restaurant, of course, employed half the population of Culver (or so it seemed) through the years.

"When we first started," Lora says, "On weekends we'd have six waitresses and four women in the kitchen."
That number ebbed and flowed through the years, but most Pinders’ staffers stayed through high school.

"We had whole families," Peggy recalls. "They were loyal."

In fact, says Ed, the family still gets visits from many of the hundreds of former teens who worked for the restaurant.

"A number of times I would fix a cheeseburger for everybody working there," says Ed. "I would put their names on the Styrofoam box; I was tired, but those kids were great. On Sundays, the kids working dishes, their favorite thing was mashed potatoes and noodles."

The staff had to serve up to 170 people -- the seating capacity of Pinder's at its height -- in addition to bartenders. Pinder's also delivered meals out of the family station wagon to the former McGill's factory (today Medallion Cabinetry) nearby.

"We sent out about 180 Christmas cards to our customers and others," Ed notes.

As might be expected, there were some memorable moments with customers and otherwise.

"We got some eccentric people," acknowledges Lora. There was the man who came in with loaded guns, the one who put his teeth in his water glass and cleaned them with a pocket knife, and the one who regularly put a hair in his cherry delight dessert to get an extra.

"We had nicknames for people," smiles Ed. "'Mr. Chicken...Crummy.'

"Our best tipper," says Peggy, "was George Steinbrenner."

"He was great to us," agrees Julie. Eddie recalls Steinbrenner gave the family with tickets to see the Chicago Cubs in the 1984 and 1989 playoffs.

"Only once did anybody ever go up to him (as a celebrity while dining)," Lora says. "We treated him like any other customer. He loved the meat loaf and chicken and noodles."

Peggy recalls Steinbrenner "always remembered our names and asked about our kids. He and his wife were amazed we could work together so well as a family."

The family also recalls staying open late for legendary Broadway playwright and director Josh Logan, a Culver Military Academy grad, to dine at Pinder's.

As much as the Pinder's staff enjoyed their customers, at times business just had to go on. Family members learned the trick of making their own telephone ring as an "escape" plan.

"We had lots of fake phone calls to get Lora away from customers," Julie laughs. "We made about eight or 10 phone calls a day!"

"The little old ladies loved Eddie," Ed recalls with a smile, "except for the one he almost killed! A big dog was in our front entry way and Eddie kicked the door open for it, and (the door) smacked her on her back!"

Eddie also had the opportunity to perform CPR a few times.
All in all, of course, the Pinder family wouldn't change its customer base or trade in its great memories.

"In 30 years of business," Lora notes, "we could name on two hands all the bad experiences."

There were other memorable events, such as the "blizzard of the century" in 1978. When the storm first hit, the family barely made it home from the restaurant.

That was a Wednesday, says Ed, and the streets were just clear enough by Saturday for him to make it to the restaurant to check the equipment there.

"I waded into snow up to my chest and finally got the door open. Then on Sunday we had to clear off a little bit of the front of the lot and we opened (about) three hours. We had an older couple come all the way from Winamac! The snow was piled up at least a month after that."
"We almost starved during the blizzard," Lora adds. "I didn't have food here (at home); it was all at the restaurant!"

There was also the short-lived experiment of a Pinder's franchise -- or at least the first in a franchise.

"We thought we could expand," Ed explains. "When Eddie was 14 years old, Julie and Cheryl were willing to run the restaurant in Culver. Liz and her husband and Eddie went down to Peru (Indiana) with us. We thought it would make them a good career."

After briefly considering opening a Ramada Inn, the family settled on Pinder's II, which opened to much fanfare in Peru. During its first week, however, the operation was plagued with difficulties.

"Our huge ice machine went down, the coolers on top the building were going down. We said, 'We can't afford to put all these things in,' and we asked our lawyer, Jim Grund, to get us out of this contract. We had great business; it was a wonderful week. But we turned it back to the owners."

The building burned down a month after the Pinders handed in their keys.

As Pinder's in Culver neared 30 years in business, things were beginning to change. While location had never hindered the restaurant's business before, it became a factor in the late 1990’s, which Lora calls "the new era of fine dining in Culver," though she's quick to point out business was still good. Ed notes Pinder's had cut down to serving one meal daily its last seven years.

The writing was on the wall when Ed lost one of his eyes to macular degeneration.

"I knew I couldn't run the kitchen if I was blind," he says. "I was getting a little tired in the kitchen. I had two boys that helped in the kitchen at that time, and they were wonderful help...they decided I didn't need two people and could get by with one. So I just had one boy help me, and it was a little much for me. I'd come home and take a nap in between hours. It was getting harder to find good help, too, though we had a good crew when we closed."

Ed and Lora offered their children the restaurant, "but they didn't want it, so we put it on the market. A number of people wanted to buy it but didn't have the money."

After four years on the market, the building sold to George and Tammy Pesek, who had operated the Corndance Cafe on Main Street since 1999.
The final week of business at the beloved institution was "very busy," recalls Ed. In fact, he told the Culver Citizen in 2002, it was the restaurant's busiest ever, as customers -- still in disbelief that Pinder's could close -- came by for a "last meal."

It's telling that the Pinder name continues to be used to "sell" a community event: the chili at a Council of Churches supper is prominently advertised as a "Pinder’s recipe," as are other food items Ed and Lora continue to make from scratch for bake sales, benefits, and events of all sorts. And of course the couple -- and their family -- continue to be household names in Culver, whether its Ed's role on Culver's town council, or he and Lora at Wesley United Methodist Church and elsewhere.

Undoubtedly, then, the loss is lessened in that while Pinder's the restaurant is gone, Pinders the family are still here; and it was their presence which made the Culver family seem a part of their own.