Serving up family favorites in Jasper, Ark., since 1909
JASPER, ARK. – With a population of 482, the charming Ozark Mountain town of Jasper, Ark., is alive with history. The oldest structure on the town square, built in 1874, is part of the Ozark Café.
The café itself was established in 1909 and is the second oldest business in Jasper. It’s one of the few historic landmarks in Jasper and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Ozark Café was once only a third of its current size. Owner Russ Todd explained how the building was expanded about 25 years ago when the then-owners jackhammered holes into adjoining buildings’ walls. Russ said they didn’t really know what was going to happen and the then-owners cringed as they waited to see if the old stone masonry would stabilize or come crumbling down when they began the demolition. Thankfully, it was the former rather than the latter. Now, what used to be adjoining businesses to the café are now the dining areas for the large crowds – both locals and tourists – that frequent the restaurant.
The building features original stone and rock masonry and exposed, rough sawn ceiling beams. A set of old, colorful stained-glass windows rescued from an old local church decorate one of the dining areas. In the middle room of the business, a stage is set for local musicians to play.
Although the history is fascinating that’s not what usually draws in customers — it’s the food. Large portions and unique specials, like the famous chocolate gravy and deep-fried burgers, attract hungry patrons and famished tourists. Plate-size cinnamon rolls with soft, whipped cream like frosting even tempt their own employees who purchase the food to take home on occasion.
Russ has been in the food business going on three decades. He does a little bit of everything in the restaurant he co-owns, including cooking. He worked in the fast-food industry after high school, then went off to serve in the Navy for seven years. Once he returned from his service, he was reemployed thorough Hardees and worked there for more than 20 years. He purchased the Ozark Café seven years ago and has no intentions of doing anything different in the future. Russ said his café is the third largest employer in Jasper, just the school district and a local nursing home, so it has an important place in the small town’s economy.
“I enjoy pleasing people and do my best to make people happy,” Russ said His wife Jerri agreed with that.
Jerri is the café’s social bug and trail expert. She loves socializing with visitors, so that’s what she does while Russ does his restaurant magic behind the scenes. The couple have seven children between the two of them, and Jerri said she and the family love to hike. She enjoys sharing her trail knowledge with tourists, as it’s difficult to find a lot of the good hiking locations on GPS. When customer’s come in for a meal at the café, Jerri is a built-in information guide.
Russ and Jerri co-own the café with their daughter Amanda and son-in-law Fred Lydick who live in Oklahoma, but Russ and Jerri do the on-scene work of the café, which has had its challenges since the pandemic, to say the least.
The Todds are still taking precautions during the pandemic to keep their customers and employees safe, going so far as to close down the restaurant temporarily, if needed.
As for this year, they are just winding down from the summer rush, but it won’t be long, they said, before business ramps back up again as the mountain town is painted with the colors of autumn in its picturesque landscapes, drawing in fall tourists. Russ and Jerri love the busy season and are looking forward to offering up a bowl of chocolate gravy, a deep-fried burger, trail expertise, or a slice of history to their customers.