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Down-home cooking at downtown eatery

Downtown Bowling Green is the home of many restaurants, but there are not many restaurants that people call “home.”

However, Kermit’s Family Restaurant is one exception.

The little yellow brick building with the magenta roof welcomes all types of people.

Through the squeaky door walks everyone from college students to working men to senior citizens.

All is quiet except for the sound of slow country music playing on the radio and the clanging of dishes in the kitchen.

Some customers sit alone, sipping on coffee and flipping through the newspaper while others sit in groups chatting about whether to order the country fried steak smothered in gravy or the famous Kermit Melt.

With restaurants lining the streets of Bowling Green, Kermit’s remains one of the few that offers real, homemade cooking.

From liver and sautéed onions to roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy to corn muffins or apple pie, everything is homemade.

“We don’t pick the apples, but other than that, all the pies are from scratch,” said Jim Mass, owner and head cook of Kermit’s. “All the pies that are cream pies are cooked over fire on the back stove. Some people just get a pie mix and mix in some water and beat it up and it looks nice and fluffy, but it doesn’t taste the same.”

Maas’s daughter bakes and prepares all the food and has been doing so for nine years, according to Maas.

While the homemade cooking may attract many, the family atmosphere also keeps customers coming back again and again, according to some of the people who work there.

“Everybody knows everybody,” said Tammy Stahl, head waitress at Kermit’s. “I have customers who have been coming in here the whole 13 years that I’ve been working here. It’s a family atmosphere. Most of the customers know my life, my family and I know theirs.”

Some come in so often that Stahl now recognizes their cars and before they walk through the door, she has them set up at a table with their food already cooking on the grill.

“I usually don’t have to take menus to too many people,” she said. “A lot of people get the same old thing. I have one guy who will get oatmeal on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and eggs and toast on Tuesday and Thursday.”

With only 14 people on staff, the workers are a very tight-knit bunch, according to Stahl.

In addition to Maas, his daughter and granddaughter, Stahl works with family, too.

“My daughter works here now,” she said. “I used to walk around pregnant with her and she just started a month ago. Her dad, Chuck, works in the kitchen.”

In walks a regular customer with his wife and grandson.

“Hey Tam, got room for us?” he shouts to Stahl from the door.

As she nods and grabs their drinks, they take their usual booth.

Some customers even peek over the wall that separates the booths to give a friendly wave to their friends.

“We also have good old Johnny Beach who comes in all the time. He’s 90 years old and has been around town for years,” Stahl says. “He gives everybody a hard time. He always yells, ‘I want more coffee and make it snappy.'”

These regulars are the restaurant’s “bread and butter,” according to Maas.

“Dining out is an experience for them,” Maas said. “I have people eat with me every night of the week. One gentleman eats here twice a day, seven days a week. He tells me what to do and who to hire.”

Kermit’s is commonplace for many college students, too, as they make up about one-third of the business.

“We have three guys that come in every morning, Monday through Friday, before class,” Stahl said.

In addition to the regulars, not much has changed since Maas and his wife bought the restaurant 19 years ago.

Maas and his wife, who were both experienced in the restaurant business, grew tired of the corporate life and decided to buy the little empty building on 307 S. Main St., which used to be The Wagon Wheel from the mid-1940s until the 1970s, according to Maas.

Eager to start a family restaurant, the two began renovating.

And a family restaurant is just what they made it.

Maas named the restaurant after his father-in-law.

“We needed an unusual name because Jim is a pretty common name and there aren’t many people named Kermit around,” Maas said.

The inside of Kermit’s is simple. With a bouquet of red and white carnations sitting on each brown booth, a brown and tan tiled floor, flowered wallpaper and faded curtains, all help to create that “mom and pop” and country kitchen atmosphere. The antique tools hanging on the walls are the main decoration inside the diner.

The hand tools belonged to Kermit.

“He was a builder in town and he did excavation work and built homes. These hand tools are all tools that he used to build houses and things with, from the time he was about 18 years old,” he said.

Where Kermit’s lacks in elegance, it makes up for in comfort.

“It’s a homey place,” Maas said. “We didn’t want it to be elegant. It’s not supposed to be elegant. The kids love it here because they can come dressed in shorts and they don’t have to worry about if they get loud.”

The appearance and the customers have remained the same for the time that Maas has owned Kermit’s and he does not plan on changing a thing.

“We’re kind of an institution here,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of family businesses around here anymore. Most of them are Burger King or Frisch’s. There’s no other place like this around.”

John Blinn and his sister, Lois, have been patrons for 60 years. They have been coming since the restaurant was The Wagon Wheel and say that very little has changed.

“It’s always the same here,” John said. “It’s like a security blanket. You always get the same acknowledgment and the food is like mom’s home cooking. They know I like corn and they always have it ready for me when I come in.”

As Blinn helps his sister into a booth, he recalls the days when the restaurant was The Wagon Wheel.

“The Wagon Wheel looked similar to the way [Kermit’s] looks now except it had a big wagon wheel out front,” he said. “When it was The Wagon Wheel, I came here with my grandma every Thursday for breakfast.”

Though Kermit’s looks similar to the way The Wagon Wheel looked, the only real original fixture that remains today is the light above the cash register, which resembles a miniature lantern and adds to the atmosphere of the diner.

As the customers stuff their faces with the last few bites of homemade apple pie or wipe their gravy-covered plates clean, they thank the waitress, pay their bill at the front and leave.

But Maas and the rest of Kermit’s staff can be sure that it will not be the last time they will see these customers.

“I see them every day,” he said. “We have two grandmothers who have been coming in here for 18 years and they get the same thing every day. Tomorrow they’ll get poached eggs, well done.”

With its homemade food and family atmosphere, this tiny diner has always and will always remain a second home for many of its patrons.

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