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Cooky's Cafe has been serving up pies, homestyle meals for over 80 years in rural Missouri

Cooky's Cafe in Golden City (photo taken September, 2023)
Michele Skalicky
Cooky's Cafe in Golden City (photo taken September, 2023)

The restaurant is located in a building that's more than 100-years-old in the heart of Barton County's Golden City.

Cooky’s Café in Golden City’s historic business district is a busy place at lunchtime.

People from the surrounding area – and from further away – visit the town in rural southwest Missouri’s Barton County for the homestyle meals.

Cooky’s is an example of a rural business that has survived for decades.

The restaurant opened in 1942 and originally operated in a building catty corner to where it is now – Giles Station, which still stands. But the business has been at its current location – in a building that dates back to the early 1900s – since 1946.

Cecil Ambler whose nickname was Cooky opened the restaurant with his wife Ellen. It’s changed owners over the years – Willy and Holly Stefan bought it in 2020 – but its focus on homestyle cooking hasn’t changed.

Cooky's Cafe 2
Michele Skalicky
A meal at Cooky's Cafe in Golden City, MO (photo taken September, 2023)

Golden City Councilwoman Sharon Wingert has lived in the town most of her life, and she worked at Cooky’s Café when she was a teenager. She remembers when there was no menu, and there were only three entrees you could order.

"You would go to the table and say, 'we have fried chicken, brisket and ham dinners," said Wingert. "And they could choose between them. They had baked potatoes, mashed potatoes and then they had a vegetable and a salad."

The menu's expanded greatly since then, but one thing is constant: "it's a really nice cafe, and if you want a good meal and everything...and sometimes farmers like to get in there and gossip in the morning and so forth," said Wingert. "People come in for coffee in the morning and visit. It's just a local hub."

Longtime employees Shawnda McDonald and Colby Cliett make sure the restaurant continues to operate as it always has.

McDonald has worked at Cooky’s for 26 years. She remembers what it was like at the beginning.

"Well, when I first started working here," said McDonald, "we was so busy that we had people lined out down the road to the automotive garage down there, which is what? Like, three, four blocks."

And that was on a regular basis.

"You're talking noon and dinner almost every day," McDonald said.

Times have changed, and so has traffic into the restaurant. Lunch gets a steady crowd, but dinner – offered Fridays and Saturdays -- isn’t usually as busy. And there isn’t a line out the door anymore.

McDonald blames higher gas prices and the COVID-19 pandemic, which hurt the business’s bottom line.

The pandemic led to a shortage of workers for many business owners, and Cooky’s was no exception. Cooky’s manager Colby Cliett, said, for awhile, the restaurant was having trouble finding and keeping cooks.

"Not to blame COVID on everything," she said, "but after COVID noone wanted to work. It was terrible."

Businesses in rural parts of Missouri had even more difficulty finding employees since the worker pool in those areas is smaller.

"There's not as many people in the area to recruit, you know. A lot of us don't necessarily live right here," Cliett said. "A good portion of us do, but..."

An advantage of running a restaurant in a small town, she said, is that people love to visit for homestyle food.

McDonald and Cliett, who’s been at Cooky’s for 14 years, love working at the restaurant, and they want to see it succeed. They said they want people to know that, despite an ownership change three years ago, the food is still the same.

"Nothing foodwise has changed," said McDonald. "I mean, we struggled there for awhile, like I said with cooks and stuff, you know, I mean — but we got that all straightened up. I mean, it took us awhile."

"We've tried to keep everything consistent over the years," added Cliett. "Old recipes, everything."

The question consistently asked to diners after they're done with their meals is "do you guys want some pie?"

Cooky's Cafe pies
Michele Skalicky
The pie cooler at Cooky's Cafe in Golden City, MO (photo taken September, 2023)

And the pies are still the same, too. There are 30 different kinds.

"Coconut cream, you know, like apple — Dutch apple is pretty popular," said Cliett. I mean, we have all types — fruit pies. We have like chocolate cream, coconut, lemon. We have pecan, raisin. Yeah, we have pretty much everything you can think of. We even have rhubarb and gooseberry."

Cooky’s has endured, in part, because of regular customers like Dalinda Mitchell who lives in Kansas and Janet Guinn who lives north of Greenfield. They meet at Cooky’s to catch up every two weeks. It’s a place that’s near and dear to them.

"Love it — we love it here," they said.

And they love to shop at the flea market across the street, said Guinn, gesturing to both it and the restaurant.

"Sherry's, Cooky's," she said, and they both laughed. "We have a very good time here. It's very good food."

And they said they love the people who work at Cooky’s.

Cliett and McDonald said they still look forward to coming into work at Cooky’s even after so many years there – especially for one reason.

"Customers — the people," said Cliett.

"The customers, the people and this place," added McDonald. "I mean, we've been here so long."

"We would like to see it thrive, continue," said Cliett. "And, business has picked up the past few months for sure."

"I mean, our hearts are in this place," said McDonald. "I mean, this is our job. I mean, we care. We care about Cooky's...tremendously."

Cliett worries that if one of Cooky’s longtime employees left, the restaurant might not survive. She explains why she stays despite some challenges that come with the job.

"Because I would like to see it keep going," she said. "I mean, I've put in a lot of hours, you know. "And, not every day is good, but we try to strive for that. We try to keep it going — like she (McDonald) said. Like, this is our place, you know. I've raised my kids here. Like, she raised her kids here, all the same people."

And she said everyone – both fellow employees and regular customers – are like family.

That’s one advantage, she said, of being in a small town – you get to know the people.

Cooky's Cafe 3
Michele Skalicky
Cooky's Cafe in Golden City, MO (photo taken September, 2023)

Councilwoman Wingert hopes Cooky’s will continue to thrive in the heart of Golden City. She calls it a stabilizer for the town.

"You know, it's where people like to go and eat and stuff, and a lot of people come in from out of town," she said. "And people come in — I don't know, it's just, it's just a really nice cafe."