Throw Them Rolls

We spent a week in Gulf Shores AL at the stunningly beautiful state park. On the way down, Ben told me we were going to make time to go to nearby Foley to visit Lambert’s. When I asked him what Lambert’s was, his answer was mystifying. “It’s the place where they throw rolls at you.” I asked him to explain.

Lambert’s Cafe turns out to be one of those local family restaurants that achieved legendary status because of its founder, Earl Lambert. An excerpt about Earl on their website reads:

Earl Lambert met and married Agnes Dyer and moved his new family to near Sikeston, Missouri, in the southeastern part of the state. They started out as sharecroppers and later worked at the International Shoe Company in Sikeston.

Then in 1942 with only 14 cents to their name, they borrowed $1,500 and opened the first Lambert’s Cafe. It was the middle of World War II, and times were tough all the way around for almost everybody. But Earl always offered plenty of fixin’s at a reasonable price, and the cafe got more and more popular.

More about ‘fixin’s’ later. There are three Lambert’s locations: two in Missouri, the first Cafe in Sikeston and a second in Ozark. The third location is in Foley, Alabama. I read that Earl and Agnes Lambert liked to vacation in Alabama at Gulf Shores. Since they liked the area around Foley, they decided to build a restaurant near their vacation spot. It was smart of them to expand only into markets the family knew would be sustainable. Don’t look for franchises any time soon. If you want the experience you’ll have to point yourself south.

Earl may have been the founder, but it was his son Norman who is responsible for the “Throwed Roll” phenomenon.  Legend has it that Norman, a high school football coach for Sikeston started the practice of throwing rolls at customers when it was too crowded to walk between the tables. He was quite a character, you can read more about Norm here.

We arrived for an early supper—3:00. The place can get really crowded for lunch and dinner so it seemed like a good idea to go in between the rush. Regardless of the hour here was a respectably sized crowd present. There were a few tables with couples like us but most of the tables were packed with families.

The exterior of Lambert’s Cafe is styled like a giant shed. The interior is cavernous, with a country cabin feel. Tribute walls to generations of Lamberts tell the family’s life story filled the lobby. Mementos of bygone days were hung all over the walls. Cracker Barrel totally stole their look.

Ben just before the pass-around parade started

We were led to our table and handed an intimidating menu. (see below) Once seated, drink orders taken, a parade started. First to come by was a guy with an enormous tray of equally enormous rolls. Since he was right at our table he didn’t exactly throw a roll at us; it was more of a gentle underhanded lob. A young woman came by to offer us a choice of sorghum (molasses for you northerners) or apple butter for our rolls. I passed, but Ben loves apple butter. I’d guess she plopped about half a cup of the stuff on his roll. After that, a steady stream of servers stopped at our table with what Lambert’s calls “pass arounds.” It’s quite a list, including; Apple Butter, Sorghum, fried okra, tomatoes and macaroni, macaroni and cheese, black-eyed peas and boiled cabbage. These are plopped at your table for no extra charge before, during and after your meal. We had rolls and I had okra, though I had to stop the Okra Girl from giving me a pile of the stuff. We spent the rest of our time at Lambert’s saying “no thanks” to the orbiting servers. Ben remarked that diners should have a sign to put on the table–something like ‘no solicitors.’ When the first wave of pass-arounds subsided our server came back and took our order. There wasn’t much of a wait until our enormous platters arrived. We’re both light eaters and as such we were definitely in the minority in the restaurant. Everyone else was there to EAT. It was fun. Several generations were crammed around the big tables eating and laughing. I doubt a family could whomp up such a varied menu for 12 people at home without going broke. Before our bill came, the pass-around servers made one last revolution. I guess they don’t think they did their duty unless their guests were face down in a food coma. After our meal we checked out the gift shop to look around, but didn’t buy anything. Ben found the apple butter tempting but the jars were Lambert’s sized.

Our meals, which we shared. Overwhelming. Fried shrimp with fixin’s–green beans and turnip greens. What looks like a giant derby is Ben’s salad in a bread bowl. He is contemplating whether to eat it or wear it.

Restaurants come and go. Even very successful venues are victims of a fickle public. Some do manage to last despite changing tastes and aesthetics, but they are few and far between. There may not be a lasting set of patrons for the current fusion cuisine, but there will always be people who want their souls filled with an overflowing plate of comfort food. Lambert’s has managed since 1942 with a savvy business plan and willing relatives, through social upheaval and at least one pandemic.

My grandmother would have massive Sunday dinners she cooked by herself. She was a German cook so instead of fried shrimp and fixin’s there was schnitzel, red cabbage and spaetzle but her way of feeding people was just like the Lambert’s. Somehow she discovered the secret of creating bottomless amounts of everything. I cannot remember any serving dishes remaining empty for long. These days few people have neither time nor space to gather the extended family around a table for a meal. Lambert’s Cafe fills that void, and there’s no clean up required.

We waddled back to the car and headed home with a generous snack bag for Ryder. Had they allowed him to dine with us, I’m sure he would have kept the pass around line busy.

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