The world according to pancakes

Diversity a legacy of the Original Pancake House
The world according to pancakes
Photograph by Mark Golbach
Cover of "The World According to Pancakes." Pictured is Charlotte Fleming, daughter of Original Pancake House owner Drew Fleming.

Anyone looking for the melting pot that once was America can find it in Madison in a seemingly unlikely place: a franchise restaurant that features such healthy options as whipped cream, cinnamon sugar and maple syrup, and closes every day by mid-afternoon.

Since last week, you don’t even have to dine at the Original Pancake House (OPH), 5518 University Avenue — although you should — to experience its extraordinary warmth and diversity.

A new book, “The World According to Pancakes,” written by Bobbie Malone with photos by Mark Golbach, celebrates the unique bond that exists between the restaurant’s multiethnic staff, clientele and owner.

“Walking from its full parking lot on a Friday morning in July,” Malone writes, near the beginning of her compact, lively narrative, “I encountered a scene that makes this particular restaurant stand out from any other — franchise or otherwise — in the city. Two young women were carrying on a conversation in Spanish on the sidewalk; behind me, an older woman was approaching with her walker; and an African American family with two small boys was exiting …. A cluster of hijab-swathed Muslim women was just vacating their table. Staff had placed a series of tables together, now filled by a large family birthday party. Other tables held retiree regulars, a couple of Asian American families, folks that appeared in work boots and those who looked like they just stepped off the golf course.”

Malone arrived in Madison in 1996, having accepted a job at the Wisconsin Historical Society. She and her husband, Bill Malone, are native Texans and accomplished writers and musicians. Bill is widely regarded as the nation’s preeminent country music historian and he’s hosted a popular radio program, “Back to the Country,” for two decades on WORT-FM. In 2016, Bobbie published an excellent biography of children’s author Lois Lenski.

The Malones had eaten the occasional weekend breakfast at the OPH since arriving in Madison. But after Bobbie retired from the historical society in 2011, they were there more often. The genial mixing of ethnic groups at OPH — not seen, alas, as much as one might hope in progressive Madison — was impossible to miss.

On February 18, 2016, owner Drew Fleming closed the restaurant, so staff members who wished to could go to the State Capitol for a rally for immigrant rights. The election nine months later and its aftermath prompted Malone to undertake a book on the restaurant.

“I thought it was important to celebrate its inclusivity,” she said. “Against the kind of divisiveness that’s being spewed, the polarization of the country. We’re more alike than not alike. And the Original Pancake House is that kind of place, where it doesn’t matter who you are. Everybody is treated the same. Just the way the world ought to work.”

Malone conducted numerous interviews with customers, staff, and owners, past and present.

The original west side OPH opened near Hilldale in 1987. The first franchise owners were Bob and Mary Ann Zownir, and Mary Ann’s parents. The inclusivity mantra started with them.

“The day I interviewed Mary Ann at the restaurant was the first of May,” Malone writes. “She told me that I had just missed a large party of Morris dancers, people who enjoy reenacting centuries-old English folk dances. They have been at the OPH on that day for many years, dressed in all of their Morris regalia.”

How close were the Zownirs to their customers? Malone relates how when one cherished regular fell ill with kidney failure, Mary Ann donated a kidney. “It was meant to be,” she tells Malone. “I think it gave him 13-15 years.”

In December 2015 — the OPH having long since moved to University Avenue — ownership transferred to Drew Fleming, who started as a cook at the restaurant upon graduating from high school.

“Drew believes that staff is the key,” Malone writes, “and he knows they know it, proud that there is so little turnover. He has six cooks, himself included. Kitchen manager Rene Hernandez has worked at the restaurant for over a decade, prep cook Cesar Morales and dishwasher Miguel Ramirez have both been on the job for more than 20 years.”

The longest serving employee? Waitress Dani Morgan. “Mary Ann cared about us as if we were family,” Morgan tells Malone. “I’ve known Drew for 20-something years and I’ve been here longer than Drew has. I remember when he was just a punk kid cooking in the kitchen. He cares about the customers.”

Malone enlisted her photographer friend, Mark Golbach, perhaps best known for his striking series of State Street images, and together — with Nancy Zucker handling the design — they’ve produced a small gem of a book. It can be purchased at the restaurant for $10.

While you’re there, maybe get what Bobbie gets: the 49er Flap Jacks. That’s a plate-sized pancake — chewy, tender and served with whipped butter and hot syrup. No wonder she keeps going back.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.