ou know how people talk about “dog years”? They say that every year in a dog’s life is equivalent to seven human years, so a year-old puppy’s about as mature as a second grader, and a 6-year-old dog is happily middle-aged.
There’s got to be a theory like that about the age of restaurants, too, right? For a restaurant to even survive their first year, that must be like aging a decade. Five years? To a lot of eateries, that’s getting past the young, vulnerable years and making it into adulthood. So you’d think that a restaurant celebrating its 70th anniversary would be ready for the rest home, but Sugar N’ Spice (4381 Reading Road, Bond Hill, 513-242-3521) is alive, well and going strong.
I went to Sugar N’ Spice when I was a little girl and my parents brought us to Cincinnati where we stayed at the Carousel Inn on Reading Road. There was a drive-in movie theater nearby. Our dinosaur parked by Fred and Wilma’s. OK, that last sentence isn’t true, but listen to this copy from Sugar N’ Spice’s original menu:
“The best to you each morning”
Our 3 Minute Special
Chilled Orange Juice
Fresh, Crisp Kellogg’s Corn Flakes
Hot Buttered Toast
and Hot Coffee
The menu advised you to, “Keep the wife for a pet and enjoy a hearty breakfast at Sugar N’ Spice.” Wow. Four “Whispy Thin” Pancakes were $1, and so was French Toast.
The menu’s lost the Corn Flakes and the sexist slogans, and the prices have kept pace with inflation, but not everything has changed. It can’t. According to Steve Frankel, the fifth and current owner, the heritage dishes that students from nearby Xavier University have relied on to cure their hangovers for three or four generations are too well loved to let go.
“The Ole Henny, the Cuddlin’ Puppy, the pancakes — they don’t need to change, so why change ’em?” Frankel asks rhetorically.
The Cuddlin’ Puppy? It’s a Kosher hot dog wrapped in bacon and smothered in cheese, a combination that would make a Rabbi shudder. There’s also a Kosher salami and cream cheese omelet, so clearly Sugar N’ Spice’s menu is written with an unorthodox sense of humor. And the breakfast crowds appreciate it, as they appreciate Frankel’s combination of hospitality, showmanship and obvious delight in what he’s doing.
Although he was born just around the corner on Bristol Lane, he came to the restaurant business through a side door, starting as an investor and ramping up his involvement as Sugar N’ Spice hit a rocky patch in the early 2000s. The Business Courier called him the Accidental Restaurateur when he finally took over from his friend, Elliot Jablonsky, who was the restaurant’s fourth owner, in 2010. He doesn’t take the credit for keeping Sugar N’ Spice going, though. He passes that along to a staff of 14 full- and part-time employees with a combined seniority of 133 years. Most of them are local folks who live within a three-mile radius of the restaurant: Norwood, Hartwell and Bond Hill.
Cook Don Love has been in Sugar N’ Spice’s kitchen for 25 years. Frankel credits Love with refining many of the restaurant’s recipes — the homemade maple syrup, the excellent mac and cheese, the barbecue sauce. He gives them a “little something extra.” Jan Hornsby has been serving for 35 years, although she now works only two or three days a week. James Sanders runs the dishwasher and “knows how to fix everything in the place.” The staff joke is, “How does Steve screw in a lightbulb?” “Hey, Jaaaaames!”
That’s another example of Frankel’s self-deprecating humor. He’s always laughing and has some trademark touches — golden dollars that he hands out to kids when he spots them in the dining room, $1 off coupons disguised as $100 bills he passes to older patrons. He delighted me with a tiny little Barq’s Cream Soda Ice Cream Float and a demitasse cup of macaroni and cheese. Both were delicious — little things, but special.
“I like to make people happy,” he says. “I figure you’ve got two choices when you wake up in the morning: You can be nice, or you can be an ass. Life’s too short. It’s not complicated.”
The food’s not complicated at Sugar N’ Spice, but there are some standouts. I didn’t try the Cuddlin’ Pup, but the omelets are brag-worthy. Mine had spinach, red peppers and feta — a great combination. The pancakes — while I’m not exactly sure what “whispy thin” means (or how to spell it!) — are a lot thinner and have more flavor than the doughy disappointments on most breakfast menus. On a nearby table, I spotted a burger smothered with cheese and surrounded by fries that looked drool-worthy.While the focus remains breakfast and lunch, Sugar N’ Spice has been “beta-testing” dinner on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights this summer. The jury’s still out on whether it will continue.
Sugar N’ Spice’s bright pink exterior makes it hard to go unnoticed. When the restaurant was featured in the March 1958 issue of Restaurant Management Magazine, it had 100 drive-in service spots outside. Now, it’s strictly a 50-seat eatery with carry out. Limousines do pull up to drop customers off alongside working-class cars, and customer loyalty runs deep. A couple, Bob and Ruth from Ft. Mitchell, come every day — a 28-mile round trip. Another customer brought his wife and newborn son to Sugar N’ Spice before he took them home from the hospital.
Is Frankel getting rich running the restaurant? Nah. He made his money as the head of corporate real estate for U.S. Bank in the boom years. He traveled all over the country then, but he came back here, to a diner right around the corner, when he retired in 2005. When he talks about success now, he talks about the people he works with and how everybody does such a good job.
“Once you get beyond the math, it’s all about relationships and did you have a good time?” he says. “That’s success.”
And he hops up from the table again to tease another regular, to get a hug from an older lady, to get a brownie for somebody who’s waiting. I stop taking notes and listen as the servers start singing Happy Birthday to a kid with a plate full of French Toast.
Happy birthday to Sugar N’ Spice, I’d sing. Many happy returns.