From Pencils to Pancakes: 'I just want to make a difference'

MERIDIAN, Idaho (KBOI) -- On most any morning, there are customers at the door ready for Steve's Cafe to open. Inside, the griddle is hot, water's on the boil and, before you know it, Tamara Jamison is like warm butter on a full stack of pancakes:

She's running everywhere.

"Little more coffee for ya?," she asks with a thousand-watt smile. "How do you want that egg?"

Tamara is a blonde tornado, trailing the sweet aroma of coffee as she passes her tables.

Jamison is one of the stalwarts at Steve's. And her boss, Steve Vincelli, couldn't be happier. Integrity is everything to this former schoolteacher, from his employees right down to the quality of the food he serves at breakfast and lunch.

"We use real butter. We don't have margarine in house," he explains in the rare moment when he isn't catering to customers. "That's a taboo word."

It's a formula that got him through a difficult first year, a make-or-break yardstick for every new restaurant. But it's a formula that works.

"It's like home cooking," says Chris Dyer between bites of hot huckleberry pancakes, a Steve's Caf specialty.

The food at Steve's is a sort of salvation for Dyer but also a bone of contention back at home. In fact, he has to lie to his wife about being such regular customer. The rib-sticking menu doesn't exactly square with his diet.

"I'm in trouble. Thank you. I've been here a few times," he says, his face flushing with embarrassment.

Vincelli has heard the story before, but it's familiar territory for the kid who grew up learning the restaurant trade at his father's knee.

"I've been doing this since I was 14," he says.

But there was a detour after college. Running restaurants might be in the family blood, but Vincelli set out instead to be a teacher. For more than four years, he was on the faculty of an elementary school in Mountain Home.

"I taught kindergarten and fifth grade about four years and really liked it," he says, suddenly growing serious. "And I got out of it four years ago because it wasn't a great time to be a teacher in Idaho and in America."

He doesn't get more specific than that, but it's clear now Mountain Home's loss has been Meridian's gain.

And that's especially true in Tamara Jamison's case.

"My husband was actually working somewhere else. I talked him into coming and working in the kitchen and now he's here, too. So it's a family event for us," she says, rushing off to a customer with a fresh pot of coffee in hand.

For his part, Vincelli sees his restaurant as a classroom. He has even set it up that way, allowing the eagle-eyed former teacher to spot trouble before it happens.

"As a manager, I can look out at every table," he says with pride. "I can look at every face and I can see every person who's come
into the restaurant."

That would include one of his favorite customers, Doris.

"I'm always joking," she says, "so I say I'm his cougar." Her tablemate giggles at the saucy joke.

Like every good teacher, Vincelli offers customers incentives, like the huckleberry challenge. Order a full stack of huckleberry-laden pancakes and finish them off and your photo goes on the Steve's Cafe Facebook page.

A strapping young customer brims with confidence. "Awesome. I can do that," he says grinning.

But an hour later, Mike isn't brimming or grinning. He looks defeated as he surveys two uneaten pancakes on his plate. Steve has seen this sort of bravado before.

Be he knows what matters here aren't gold stars but a gold standard, a lesson he learned from his dad back in Montana.

Customer appreciation is evident in the clean plates that get returned to the kitchen, and in the mash notes Tamara picks up along with her tips.

One reads: 'We loved the breakfast and loved the staff. We'll be back, Mike and Anna.'

Tamara smiles and says in a voice almost too soft to be heard, "Very nice. I keep these. I've been doing this for 25 years and I keep notes like that. Reminds you why you're doing this."

But Steve Vincelli doesn't need reminding.

"I work well with kids. I work well with people. I wanted to do something day-to-day where I was contributing back to society," he explains.

Going from pencils to pancakes wasn't the original plan, but it'll do for a Montana boy with big shoes--and fry pans--to fill. Maybe he should call his place "Steve's Schoolhouse Cafe."

Tamara Jamison no doubt would agree, if you could stop her long enough to ask.