1796 21st Ave. S.
Hours: 6 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 6 a.m.-4 p.m. Sat.-Sun.
David Baldwin and Joyce Stubblefield both started working at the Pancake Pantry in 1963, two years after Baldwin’s father Robert opened the restaurant in Hillsboro Village. David Baldwin was 10 years old and had passed the height test for employment: “I was big enough to see over the top of the booths to see which ones needed busing,” he explains. Stubblefield was 25, an office worker at Spur Oil who was looking to make more money: “I was making about $1 an hour, and we were paid every two weeks. After they took out taxes, and what you owed for gas and lunch, I brought home about $70.”
Thirty-seven years later, David Baldwin and Joyce Stubblefield are still working at the Pantry, living proof that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The restaurant is still owned by a Baldwin, but it’s been David’s place since 1988, when he bought his father out. Stubblefield still totes plates from the kitchen to her favored station of five booths and one tablebut more lucratively than she did back then, when $15 in tips was considered a good day.
Five years ago, the Pancake Pantry moved a couple of doors down from its original location into a space twice as big on its former parking lot, at the corner of 21st and Belcourt. The building and much of the kitchen equipment is new, but in the dining room are many of the booths and tables and chairs from the original Pantry.
The Pantry, like the rest of Nashville, was desegregated in the mid-’60s; no longer does the restaurant refuse entry to young men in long hair and T-shirts. The hours of operation are shorter, the lines to get inside on weekend mornings seem to get longer and longer, and prices go up a bit every year. But the essential elements of the Pancake Pantry remain the same: a comfort level built largely on the strength of a waitress staff that has collectively logged nearly 100 years of service, and pancakes that Nashvillians can’t seem to get enough of. The kitchen goes through about 40 gallons of buttermilk batter a day, using a recipe that hasn’t changed a bit.
David Baldwin is a fourth-generation restaurateur. His grandfather, Daddy Lee Baldwin, had a caboose diner with about eight stools and three booths in Titusville, Fla. Daddy Lee learned the business from his mother, who owned a boardinghouse that catered to railroad workers. She kept up the rooms, did laundry, cleaned, and cooked three meals a day.
Robert Baldwin went to school at Cornell, then worked for Hot Point selling appliances to commercial customers throughout the Southeast. During his travels, while scouting cities for the restaurant he wanted to open, he met up with Jim Gerding, who owned a restaurant named the Pancake Pantry in Gatlinburg. Baldwin liked the concept and thought it would work for Nashville, where he had found a location in Hillsboro Village, then the city’s busiest retail area outside of downtown. Though they never shared ownership, the two men worked together to develop recipes and find the right ingredients for their pancakes.
Robert Baldwin opened Nashville’s Pancake Pantry on March 17, 1961. The Pantry served breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week and was open from early morning until late at night. David Baldwin remembers that his father would go to work early in the morning, come home in the afternoons for a nap, then go back for dinner and closing. David started coming in after school, on weekends, and in the summer, first busing tables for 50 cents an hour; when he was 12, he was in the kitchen helping out on the grill.
When Joyce Stubblefield started, the waitresses wore white uniforms with little pink aprons and tiny hats. “They were pitiful,” she says scornfully. From the start, she and the other waitresses Baldwin refers to as the Golden GirlsBetty Nalls, Sue Young, and Mary Fitzpatrickworked hard to build up a stable of regulars, customers who would wait the extra five or 10 minutes for a table in their station. They also made sure the dining room operated without any hitchesin spite of their boss. “Everything would be running really smooth in the morning, and then Mr. Baldwin would come in, and five minutes later the whole dining room would be in an uproar,” Stubblefield says. “He was not a morning person. We’d get him a cup of coffee and send him out the back door.”
The Golden Girls appreciate the fact that David lets them run the front of the house with little interference. “David is the sweetest thing. He’s just like one of our own young’uns,” Nalls says affectionately.
Both Stubblefield and Baldwin fondly recall a wilder youth. Stubblefield remembers coming by the Pantry on Saturday evenings to pick up her fellow waitresses for a night on the town. “Mr. Baldwin would get mad because he knew nobody would be worth anything the next day. He had to send some girls home that were still drunk Sunday morning.” When he got older, David sometimes served as designated driver for his father’s wild waitresses and later joined in the revelry himself.
After graduating high school, the younger Baldwin first went to Emory, then to Colorado, where he majored in farm and ranch management. But just before graduation, he was hit with the cold, hard facts: He needed to make a living. He called his dad and asked if he would consider a partner. In 1978, David Baldwin bought 49 percent of the Pancake Pantry. He spent the next few months shadowing his father and taking notes. “Whatever he did, I would write it down.” Father and son worked side by side for 10 years. “My respect for him as a businessman was enormous, but working with him helped me know him as a man, and the experience helped build a great relationship that I would never have had otherwise.”
In 1988, the senior Baldwin decided to retire, and David purchased the remaining 51 percent of the business. He adjusted the operating hours in response to changing dining habitsthe Pantry no longer serves dinner and now opens an hour earlier, at 6 a.m. There have been other changes, but the biggest one came in 1995, when the Pantry moved two doors down. “We knew something was up a few years before that, when [landlord] H.G. Hill kept shortening leases,” Baldwin remembers. “I shopped around for another corner because I would have liked to have owned the property. But Hill wanted us to stay, and ultimately this is the best place for us to be. We tried to make it look enough like the old place to keep our old customers happy, and to add enough space to make the employees more comfortable in their work space.”
Not a bad goal, considering that while the Pancake Pantry isn’t likely to win any culinary awards, its fanatically devoted clientele and staff would be the envy of any restaurant. The first wave of customers is fed and out the door by 7 a.m., and not long after that the infamous Pantry line begins to form. Baldwin has the corresponding wait time figured out: “If [the line] is outside the front door, it’s about 15 minutes. If the line is down to the corner, it’s about half an hour. If it goes around the corner and gets back to the emergency exit, count on 45 minutes.”
He says the restaurant’s customers are now four generations deep, and he has been there long enough to see children grow up and bring their children in. The Pantry has always attracted nearby Vanderbilt students and hospital workers, downtown professionals stopping in for a quick breakfast, and people who work in the close-by music industry. The Pantry gets its share of celebrities too. In the ’70s, a group of men called the Breakfast Club met daily at two tables in the back; they included Porter Wagoner, Ray Stevens, Jerry Reed, and Chet Atkins. Whitney Houston has eaten at the Pantry every time she’s come to town, and of course there’s Joyce’s good friend, Garth.
“He started coming in here when he hardly had a dime for a cup of coffee,” Baldwin says. “He liked Joyce and wanted to be in her station. When he left, he said he was going home because things just weren’t working. By the time he came back, he was riding the tiger, but he was always the same to us.”
Probably because the Pantry staff has always been the same to him. But while the Golden Girls greet every customer as warmly as if they’d known them for a lifetime, these women brook no nonsense. They have been known to refuse service to crabby or belligerent customers. “You’ve heard of road rage?” Stubblefield asks. “Well, there’s restaurant rage too. A lot of people just have a bad attitude. If I have to, I’ll stand nose-to-nose with them. But mostly, it’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve made a lot of good friends and done lots of things. Back when I started, I never would have thought I’d be here this long. One day you wake up, and the years have gone by.”