Greg and Cheryl Renter (All photos by Tom Parker)
Bored no more—Retired Couple Adds Finishing Touch to Restored Beloit Hotel
Take one derelict early-20th Century hotel, add one bored-to-insanity retiree, stir in a heaping measure of inspiration and sprinkle with the dust of dreams, and what do you get? The Porter House Apartments with the Porter House Coffee Shop and Bistro in downtown Beloit. The two are inseparable, like coffee and cream, biscuits and gravy, ham and Swiss, or pancakes and syrup. (All which the Bistro serves, and serves very well.)
But this delightful concoction, this blend of old and new, almost didn’t gel. That it did is one of those serendipitous occurrences so perfect in its timing that one has no other option than to believe it was meant to be.
When Cheryl Renter retired from the Kansas Gas Service four years ago, she went home and did things retired people do. She worked in the yard, washed windows and dishes, dusted the nooks and crannies of the farmhouse she shares with her husband Greg, vacuumed, swept, mopped, cleaned the closets. “I caught up on all the things you think you want to do when you’re retired,” she says. “I did it all.”
“Even the closets?” I ask.
“Even the closets!” she says, laughing. “And I was so bloody bored I thought I’d go out of my mind. You know, you can only clean closets so long until you start to go wacko.”
Cheryl’s sanity-threatening ennui coincided with the near-completion of a renovation project in downtown Beloit, three miles away. The Porter Hotel, built in 1939 across from the Mitchell County Courthouse and a mere two blocks from the train depot, was being converted from an abandoned shell into an affordable rental complex for seniors. Except for a small space fronting the street, construction was finished. There, the management company wanted a coffee shop or small restaurant to serve the needs of the residents, specifically, at least—anyone would be welcome. A lease was signed, and the final phase of the renovation was set to begin.
Back at the Renter farm, Cheryl was considering starting a little business, a bakery of some sort where she could indulge her love for cooking and make some money at the same time—and escape the closets. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy as she thought. After talking to the EPA, KDHE and all the other agencies that wanted a bite of it, the Renters were faced with adding a separate building to house a complete commercial kitchen. “It was going to cost so much money that I would have had to do it until I was ninety-five,” Cheryl says. “I just wanted my own little place where I could bake and do my own little thing.”
The local economic development director encouraged her. It was her dream, he said, and she simply had to do it. He made it sound so—plausible. So tempting. And then, two weeks after Cheryl balked at the exorbitant cost of starting from scratch at the farm, he called to say something else.
The people who were going to open the coffee shop in the Porter Hotel had backed out of the deal—would she be interested?
She didn’t have a clue, but she met with developers to see what they had to say. They offered a three-year lease agreement.
“I ought to be able to tell in that time if I can stand it or not,” she remembers thinking. “So we signed on the dotted line. And it wasn’t long until I was in debt to the bank and running my own place.”
The Porter House was complete.
In its heyday the Porter was the only fireproof hotel between Beloit and Denver, according to a Union Pacific handbill. Constructed of concrete and steel, with girders rather than load-bearing walls and a basement foundation two feet thick, it was solid and all but impossible to burn. There was little woodwork other than the interior doors, doorjambs and front counter, and trim around the windows. Floors could be sealed off at the stairways.
Conveniently located one block from the tracks and two from the depot, and within walking distance of downtown businesses, it served travelers and residents alike for more than a half century. It was the place to stay between Denver and Kansas City, with famous big band shows and entertainers stopping by and performing.
Travelers were greeted by an expansive lobby that gave way to a cubicle-lined front counter opposite a brass-grated elevator. Windows in the barber shop looked out on the hulking edifice of the county courthouse. Offices lined the lower floor and in back a restaurant served fried chicken and steaks.
And like many rural hotels, once rail travel waned, so did its fortunes.
After sitting vacant for several years, the building was sold to Continental Management, Inc., Topeka. Renovation took almost three years and $2.4 million. Every effort was made to replicate the original lighting fixtures, and the new carpet, colors and paintings sport an art deco look. Though the exterior is blockish and bland, the finishing touches to the interior sweep the visitor away to a former time when travel was more exotic.
At first, the Porter House Coffee Shop and Bistro was little more than a signature on a dotted line.
“It was just a big empty room,” Cheryl says. “There was nothing here except the window blinds and the electrical work.”
Cheryl asked Greg to help lay out the business. He agreed with one stipulation: that they weren’t going to fry anything.
“For four years of college I worked as a fry cook,” he says. “I came home smelling like a French fry.”
Though he’d made a career as superintendent of the Beloit public schools, it was this background in fast-food kitchenry that enabled him to professionally design the floor space. With only a small rectangle to work with, he laid out a small L-shaped kitchen designed for efficiency and workflow. Cooking starts in the extreme rear and orders move forward until as a finished product they’re whisked out into the serving area.
Small tables fill the main room and a large comfortable couch sits sideways across the front windows. It was originally placed in what Cheryl calls the “quiet area,” a cozy nook tucked away by the kitchen, but she found it wasn’t being used. Now that the couch is positioned by the windows it’s often filled, she says. And the quiet area is a favorite of those seeking a little less hustle and bustle.
“People gravitate back there because it’s quiet, and they’ll get out their laptops or their books,” she says. “One group of ladies comes in every morning for bible study.”
The cash register and front counter are by the entrance. On the wall is an original menu, circa 1950 or so, one of the many touches that bridge the past to the present. But where the old restaurant served fried foods, the Bistro serves a healthier fare. Partly this is Greg’s influence, but mainly it’s due to the historical significance of the building. It was placed on the National Historic Register in 2004 and as such it’s against regulations to install a deep-fat fryer or a commercial ventilation system—something that suits Cheryl perfectly.
“I don’t like to cook that way anyway,” she says. “To me, burgers and fries are the last resort.”
The menu has an extensive breakfast selection with traditional favorites such as eggs and bacon or ham, biscuits and gravy, cinnamon rolls or pancakes—the house specialty—as well as more unusual offerings such as breakfast burritos, cinnamon swirl French toast, yogurt parfaits, specialty muffins or biscottis. Pancakes are served everyday but on Fridays a plate of three pancakes goes for a measly buck—a real bargain.
Lunch items include sandwiches served on wheat berry or egg pane breads, or on a croissant; wraps served in herb, tomato, spinach or rosemary caramelized-onion tortillas with Porter sauce and a choice of side; salads; soups; and pizza. Ice cream is the dessert, whether alone in a dish or served in waffle cones, cake cones or as a chocolate sundae.
Wednesday evening, the only evening the Bistro is open, is Italian night, with spaghetti and one other entrée. Sunday noon is fried chicken and one other entrée—whatever Cheryl feels like cooking,.
And if that’s not enough, there’s always an assortment of homemade apple butter, granola and candies, all made by Cheryl. And then there’s the coffee.
Name your poison—the Bistro’s got it: regular coffee large or small, latte, carmel macchiato, breve, and cappuccino of several stripes (in-house, frozen, shake and the cappuccino bomb). “You know, the whole nine yards,” Cheryl says.
For tea drinkers, there’s spiced chai, frozen spiced chai, and, for those who simply can’t make up their minds, a spiced chai latte.
The menu is enough to separate it from Starbucks, which is what people often associate with coffee shops. Though Beloit is a college town, the clientele is more baby-boomer. “People our age,” as Greg puts it.
“The social aspect is very important in a building like this,” Cheryl says. Besides the usual outside customers, it’s frequented by Porter House residents. Free coffee is provided once a week in the lobby. Menu items are delivered upon request.
In January 2008, the Bistro enters its third year. For Greg, it’s been a win-win situation. “Cheryl has something to do and it keeps the mess out of the house,” he says.
And while he doesn’t go home smelling like French fries, Cheryl has one half-hearted complaint: “I leave here smelling like pancakes.”
“It’s turned into more than a coffee shop,” she says. “I’m still not bored. I’m having the time of my life. Now that I have a commercial kitchen, I can now do all those things I wanted to at the farm.”
And she does it very well. Though the railways are no longer the main source of transportation through this central Kansas town, travelers can still find comfort and pleasure in the grand old Porter House.
The Bistro is located at 209 E. Main St., downtown Beloit. Hours are Tuesday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., Wednesday evening from 5:00 to 7:30 p.m., and Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. It’s closed the third Sunday of each month and on Mondays. Cheryl and Greg Renter can be reached at 785-738-9902.