In the last week of 2021, Tom Mulvihill and his wife were trying to get from California to Florida by New Year’s Day. They were making good time but were running low on gas. When Mulvihill pulled off Interstate 10 into Sheffield, the nearest gas station was still eighteen miles away.
Desperate, the couple approached the only open business they could find: the Tin Cup Cafe. They were not the first wayward travelers to find themselves at owner Cheryl Robinson’s door. She made a call and a local soon appeared with a canister of gas and filled Mulvihill’s tank, asking for nothing in return. “It was the small-town stuff,” he said. “The faith in humanity, the ‘take care of each other’ that had been completely lost on me in living in Southern California almost all my life.”
It’s all part of a day’s work for the Tin Cup, the only restaurant in town. While there may be fast food aplenty in Texas’s small towns (although in some remote regions, you’ll barely see any of those either), it’s the mom-and-pop joints that keep residents and passersby fed—in more ways than one. Yes, you can get a darn good burger, but you’ll also find a social hall, community resources, and a helping hand. They persist in the face of dwindling populations and supply-chain challenges, because for these restaurants, hanging on is not just business, it’s personal.
Robinson grew up in Sheffield, a town of fewer than two hundred that’s an hour east of Fort Stockton. She remembers a time when there were two places to eat (one, El Camino, was the restaurant where her father would take her to get glazed donuts). “But they’re abandoned now,” Robinson said. She decided to establish the Tin Cup Cafe. “We kind of opened it for the people because there was nothing here,” Robinson said. “Just to give back to Sheffield.”
Despite its humble population, which has seen a 70 percent decrease since 2000, Sheffield has plenty of mouths to feed. There is a regular law-enforcement presence in the area, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, Border Patrol, and Texas Parks and Wildlife officials. In the winter, when the cold settles into the Pecos River Valley and the roads turn to ice, stranded motorists take shelter at the Rock Inn, the motel Robinson owns that’s attached to the Tin Cup.
“Cheryl, she’s not in it for the money,” said Madera Cox, Robinson’s daughter-in-law. “She’s in it to help people in the town. That’s why she’s been running this place for so long.”
Locals follow Tin Cup’s Facebook page closely to track menu offerings such as smothered pork chops, chicken spaghetti casserole, and beef tips in gravy. Customers rave about the Poncho burger, which is topped with Hatch green chiles. Mike, Robinson’s husband, smokes the meats for specials such as brisket quesadillas (the only brisket you can get for eighty miles, according to Robinson). “People crave those,” local justice of the peace Donna Wooten said. “You know, fast food but home-cooked meals.”
But Sheffield isn’t the only place where residents depend on the only locally owned restaurant in town for sustenance. In Loving, eighty miles northwest of Fort Worth, Debbie Cathey manages the Loving Cafe. Her “assistant” is her five-year-old daughter, who serves as the unofficial greeter. On any given day, you will find a community hub where locals meet for coffee and old men gather around the Formica tables to talk politics. The cafe, which most days is open only for lunch, hosts a weekly fish fry on Friday evenings.
Last year, Cathey had to temporarily close the restaurant when business slowed. When she finally reopened about six months later, she felt as if she were starting from scratch because she had to rebuild an inventory and a customer base—even in a town of 140. Cathey was determined to take a new approach to her business by sourcing from local suppliers to create an atmosphere of home cooking. She wants the Loving Cafe to feel like “you’re coming over to my house to eat a good meal,” she said.
Prior to the pandemic, small farmers and producers were less connected to the food supply system, according to Texas Restaurant Association president and CEO Emily Williams Knight. But shutdowns and delays caused by the pandemic created a gap in services that small suppliers could fill. Local suppliers can be especially beneficial to rural and family-owned restaurants that may not be able to meet the higher product minimums put in place by large suppliers.
Cathey gets her hamburger meat from Dalton Pitcock, who raises his own cattle and has them processed at a local plant. For a small-scale producer, the opportunity to sell excess supply can be a game changer.
“I was seeking a small cafe that I could keep up with my small scale,” Pitchcock said. “So, it’s worked out really good for me so far.”
The pandemic years have been uncertain times for restaurants across the state. According to the TRA, almost 20 percent of Texas restaurants have closed since March 2020, and those that are open are facing supply-chain issues and inflation. But most of the eateries that were the only ones in their respective towns made it through.
“So many of the smaller restaurants that first year really made it because the community rallied around them and gave them back the same love and support that restaurant had given that community for so long,” Knight said.
The community’s allegiance to Tin Cup Cafe is apparent in Sheffield. Ever since Mike’s cancer diagnosis in 2018, the Robinsons have balanced running the Tin Cup with fighting for his health. This sometimes meant traveling to Dallas, a six-hour drive from Sheffield, for treatment. During this tumultuous time, a customer offered to weed Tin Cup’s lawn.
“You know, people pitch in,” Robinson said. “They’ll pitch in or clear a table or whatever. They’re real good to me. I’m spoiled, I guess. They all spoil me here.”
Restaurant owners’ drive to do right by the community can often complicate financial matters. They’re attempting to keep prices low and portion sizes large in the face of an inflation rate that’s the highest in forty years, according to a recent Labor Department report. But the survival of these restaurants is dependent on them bending to the will of the market—at least a little bit. “The thought of a price increase, [owners], as embedded as they are in the community and seeing their own community now suffering through inflation, tend to make an emotional decision, which is ‘I can’t do that to my customers now,’” Knight said. A small increase in prices can make the difference for a family-operated joint trying to stay afloat. Sometimes the customers suggest a price hike.
“I don’t know how they make any money,” Wooten, the justice of the peace, said. “She goes, ‘Well, these guys get hungry.’ I said, ‘But Cheryl, you don’t charge enough to serve this amount of food.’ And I don’t know how she does it.”
Robinson did update her menu pricing last fall—her famed Poncho burger went up by $1.
At Loving Cafe, Cathey had to cut back hours and slim down her menu, which once featured daily specials so varied customers that could order a different one every day for a month. But she’s more hesitant to cut back on portion sizes. “Debbie’s adamant about her half-pound burgers,” Pitcock said.
But Cathey hopes she can soon return to offering a bigger menu. While the patty melt currently on offer receives compliments, Cathey has fewer opportunities to get creative in the kitchen and serve a wider variety of needs (such as the time a vegetarian rolled into town and she whipped him up a mushroom burger on the fly).
For many one-haunt towns in Texas, the local restaurant doubles as a general store, as with Green’s Sausage House in Zabcikville, which opened ten miles east of Temple in 1946. Its meat market expanded over the years, eventually offering thirty types of sausage and adding a small bakery.
Another Central Texas joint, Andice General Store, has served many roles since it opened in 1930 as a post office. Since then, it has been as a feed store, a general store, a gas station, and now a burger joint. Andice General once carried everything from toilet paper to school supplies, but its proximity to Georgetown has made its market less relevant. “Dollar stores kind of started to open up a few miles this way and a few miles that way and that stuff just kind of dropped off,” owner Alan Thomas said. Luckily, its popularity as a restaurant has survived the encroaching Whataburgers.
While not all restaurants have found success as multifunctional spaces, Knight predicts that diversification may be the key to keeping them alive in small communities. “I see some ability to evolve,” she said. “I think you’re gonna see them do more bulk goods, maybe family to-go meals, maybe even more takeout.”
Some owners believe that owning and operating their establishments is now a lifelong endeavor.
People often ask Marvin Green, the owner of Green’s Sausage, when he is going to retire, but he has no such plans on the horizon. “I say, ‘Well, I don’t know. Whenever I’m ready.’ But I’m not ready,” he said. “And it’s because it’s not like you get up in the morning and go to work. You get up in the morning and you go to see people that you enjoy seeing. And you know customers, they’re like family.”
For people living in more urban areas, the past few years have been a lesson on the importance of community and the ritual of dining. But one-haunt towns have long been aware of how much a restaurant can have an impact.
“There are a lot of local people that come out there daily, and it’s kind of a part of their routine,” Pitcock said. “And they’re my neighbors, a lot of them, that are eating my beef and supporting the local cafe as well. It’s neat to see that. It’s kind of a community deal that holds it together.”