Life on the East Side will go on without IHOP. The DeWitt Wegmans will continue to be rearranged every few months for reasons not even Wegmans understands. Oil trains laden with super-combustible Bakken crude will still rumble through East Syracuse. Nesting Canada geese will still attack joggers on the Erie Canal towpath.
But much like that steeply pitched blue roof, the truth cannot be easily concealed. On Saturday night, May 30, the DeWitt IHOP served its last-ever Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity. And yes, they served it to me. In the mad scramble to modernity, another cornerstone of local history lies battered. The DeWitt IHOP is toast.
“They don’t take into account people and lives,” said a crestfallen Joan Horton, who, along with her husband, Ron, ran the business for 26 years. “They just look at the numbers.”
Joan believes IHOP’s decision to shutter the local landmark stems from corporate America’s obsession with uniformity. The cozy pancake house across from the DeWitt fire station had its quirks. Possibly it was a little small. Possibly the only way to get there if you were traveling east on East Genesee Street was to make a U-turn in Chittenango. The store did well enough, but Joan figures the chain might be hoping to attract a larger franchisee who will operate several identical gleaming pancake boxes in the area.
And, of course, there’s the new IHOP at Destiny USA, which underscores a troubling shift in the regional economy. Will Congel Inc. not rest until it locks up every market in Central New York — including the market for late-night boozers desperate for Swedish pancakes?
The final hour was 11 p.m. until midnight, and it was straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. A sweet melancholy poured through the place like Butter Pecan syrup. In one booth a family ate in honor of its grandmother, whose favorite restaurant had been the DeWitt IHOP. Really.
A young Syracuse couple, Daegan and Rachel Fox von Swearinger, who showed me a driver’s license to prove that was their real name, stopped in for a Last Supper. They discovered the eatery four years ago, while traveling from Ohio to Boston, and they were charmed by the Hanukkah decorations even though the Fox von Swearingers — and again, that is their real name — are not Jewish.
“We have a lot of friends who are Jewish,” Daegan said.
Dude, it’s the East Side. We all do.
Waitress Da Shure Moore said the reality hit her when she came to work and saw pictures had been taken down and some tables had not been reset. “I got an ache in my stomach,” she said.
As if the night couldn’t get any more emotional, I was joined at my table by Gary Philips of Liverpool, who has emerged as a kind of Al Sharpton of chain restaurant milestones. Gary was right behind me when I was first in line for the opening of the new Cheesecake Factory at Destiny, and he was here for this funeral.
“I remember going to the first Olive Garden in Toronto when it opened,” Gary recalled as we shared a Big Steak Omelet. “They had never even heard of it before.”
Such a life.
Gary said he and his wife sometimes ate at the DeWitt IHOP when they were taking adult education courses at Shoppingtown.
“It’s the end of an era,” he said. “I really like their pancakes better than any other pancakes. And I like some of their omelets, too.”
Gary and I attacked our Big Steak Omelette — manager Chad Moore’s specialty — and pancakes with peach topping like there was no tomorrow because there was no tomorrow.
“This is delicious,” Gary said.
There was no room for dessert. But there’s always room for hope. Joan said she and Ron plan to open a new restaurant at the location, serving breakfast and lunch. Alas, the big blue roof will have to be repainted a different color. “That has to change,” she said.
She paused to reflect on IHOP’s final days. “People were thanking me, shaking my hand — it was nice,” she said. And then she went home.
Rooty Tooty, Joan’s off duty.