Growing Big Businesses in the Smallest of Places
I arrive at Kathy’s Restaurant on a Monday morning around 9:30 a.m. Immediately greeted by a friendly hello from a waitress, I take in the 1950’s style dining room, complete with black and white check tile, a classic soda fountain counter, and memorabilia of a bygone era. There is a breezy sound of easy conversation in the air, a laugh at a joke between older men, a giggle from a boy trying to fit a too big bite of scrambled eggs into his smiling mouth. I have an immediate sense that I’m in store for more than just breakfast – there’s an experience waiting.
I’m led by a kind-faced waitress to a table in the large, bright dining area to the left of the diner space. Decorated in an elegant but unpretentious country-style, it immediately translates as cheerful. To my right, a brother and sister are out to breakfast with their elderly parents, in the corner a middle-age father listens intently to his teenage son interrupted only by a proud grin, a young family with two kids are deciding which pancakes to order – blueberry or apple.
I notice the waitress places her hand on the shoulder of a woman while asking if she needs anything and try to put my finger on the sentiment. I realize where I’ve seen this before. In this place people care about people and show it by the food they serve and by taking excellent care of you. The food is fresh, the recipes are tried and true, and the kindness is effortless – like going home to grandma’s house.
Kathy’s Restaurant is a place with a pulse, a heartbeat, and an authenticity that makes it standout. Places like this don’t just happen – someone has the vision, the perseverance, and the ambition to create it. At Kathy’s Restaurant, the driving force is owner Kathy Lacey of Waynesboro, Virginia.
Raised with her sister in a devoted Christian household, high value was placed on hard work and doing your best. Marriage and children came early, and Kathy was already an experienced waitress at nineteen. With a shared passion for the food and service industry, the couple embarked on several restaurant endeavors through the years.
Eventually, Kathy was determined to open a restaurant of her own. The idea for Kathy’s Restaurant, a gathering place that’s more an extension of home than a restaurant, was born. Kathy set her sights on the Greenville Avenue property in Staunton as the location even though it was known for its hit and miss businesses. “People said they hoped I made it here because no one has ever made it here,” Kathy remembers.
Location concerns coupled with the high restaurant mortality rate could have deterred even the bravest of heart – but not Kathy. Instead, she forged ahead with her plan in an era when women entrepreneurs were pioneers in a male-dominated business world. To support her family financially, she decided to simultaneously flip houses, before the HGTV era made it trendy, while also opening the restaurant.
Earning the trust and respect of the community, Kathy flipped 150 homes in Staunton – mostly in the downtown area. Kathy credits her faith for the tenacity to open a new restaurant and flip houses at the same time. “I had faith to believe that if I did the right thing consistently, I had to be successful. I really did believe that. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to have tough times. I had many tough times, but I kept believing,” she explains.
In 1986, Kathy’s Restaurant officially opened for business. When you walk in the personal touch of the space is immediately noticeable. It’s easy to feel at home here. The menu covers breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and you may be tempted to stay for all three. Drawing visitors from miles around as well as locals, Kathy’s Restaurant has become a go spot. In fact, since 2010 the restaurant has been awarded “Best of Recognition for the Shenandoah Valley Region.”
Also known for the holiday-inspired decorations, especially at Christmas, Kathy has a special reason for keeping up the tradition. It turns out many of her older customers don’t have Christmas trees or decorations at home. For many of them, Kathy’s is where they get in the Christmas spirit.
Reflecting on her formula for success, Kathy explains, “My goal is to provide great food at affordable prices, pay my employees a fair and good wage, and to treat people the way I want to be treated.” Staff and customer loyalty are proof that she’s hit the mark. Poignantly, Kathy adds that for some customers, especially older ones, an outing to the restaurant may be the only social activity of their day. Whatever the age, it’s easy to see why people return again and again.
As I sit here writing, the breakfast crowd is rotating out with the early lunch crowd now. Waitresses bustle in and out of the kitchen, appearing with lunch plates and smiles. Here it is, 31 years later, a thriving restaurant in a spot where nothing else had thrived. A place infused with great food, caring staff, and a relaxed comfort. If things had gone differently, Kathy’s early career interests of being a missionary, nurse, or psychologist could have taken her far and wide. When asked about this she smiles and says, “There’s a little song I remember that says, “Bloom where you’re planted,” and has the assurance that God will use you there. We never know how God will use us or help us by putting the right people in our path. It’s never been just a restaurant. It’s always been more than that.”
How lucky we are that Kathy Lacey decided to bloom here in the Shenandoah Valley.