There is a crucial marking of time happening this week in middle America. Casper’s, an iconic restaurant that operates out of a Quonset Hut in Springfield, Missouri, shuts its doors for the summer. Each year, like clockwork, the owner and staff take off from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
There are some legitimate reasons for this. First, there is no air conditioning in the Quonset hut. Second, their menu staple is chili, and the demand for chili does tend to go down in the hot summer months. Third, they can. Who needs a better reason?
Although they will be back, their regular customers go into mourning as though it was the last Frito Pie they would ever be served. This year, there was added angst because Casper’s longtime cook, keeper of the chili recipe, and kitchen icon, Etta Mae, is retiring (thus the flowers displayed on the counter, a fresh touch to the otherwise eclectic décor).
Belinda Harriman has owned Casper’s since 1985. While she understands the love of the chili, she also says, “Our hamburgers are still one of Springfield’s best hidden secrets. They think of our chili, but we have more. And we get everyone coming in—blue and white collar and everything in between.”
Casper’s is one of those experiences that defines a town. If you ask locals for restaurant recommendations, it almost always makes the list, with a sly grin and a statement like, “Do you really want a local experience?”
It’s perhaps the only place in the area where people talk to each other as they wait. In fact, they even invite strangers to share a table so that more people can be seated quickly. If an invitation isn’t extended, Harriman will suggest it on one of her many visits to check her customers.
She is breezy and welcoming, ready to sit down and share her memories of the place at any time. Harriman worked for the original owner, Casper Lederer, and takes seriously the idea that she holds the legacy. She keeps his recipes on the menu, including fresh ham sandwiches and the popular chili. In fact, there is a local legend around his original hand written recipe for the chili and how it was lost for years, and then found—but you need to sit down with Harriman over some chili to get all the details!
All menu items are on a hand-lettered menu board that hasn’t visibly changed in 20 years. The desserts vary from day to day, with everything from freshly made pineapple upside down cake, lemon meringue pie, chocolate cake, and carrot cake. One of the customer favorites, though, is the strawberry shortcake, available two ways—with piecrust, the way Harriman’s grandmother made it, or with Angel Food Cake and lots of ice cream and whipped cream. She tells one customer, “I promise you on my reputation that it’s good, and if you don’t like my reputation, we’ll think of something else!”
Payment at Casper’s is on the honor system, with no bills and no credit cards. As you leave, simply walk up to the cash register and Harriman or one of her long time and loyal servers will greet you with a “What’d ya have?” and you tell her.
On the final day of each season, Casper’s closes when the food is gone—generally way before the 4 p.m. sign on the door. Harriman tells those who missed their chance, “Come back in the Fall. We’ll be here.”