At Christmastime just several months ago, a Zanesfield mother and entrepreneur and a longtime West Liberty area business owner each received some welcome news that made for one of the best holiday gifts.
Ashley Shaffer, who loves cooking and has a background in the restaurant industry, said her fiancé Eric Karn surprised her with the official word that they were going to purchase the Liberty Gathering Place, a family-friendly locale for breakfast, lunch or dinner and a slice of homemade pie.
Not long before surprising Shaffer, Karn reached out to the restaurant’s owner, Cindy Oelker, and let her know that they were ready to move forward with the business transaction. The couple previously had toured the 111 N. Detroit St., West Liberty, business.
“It’s always been my dream to own a restaurant,” Shaffer said.
Oelker has owned the Liberty Gathering Place since 1995, and said she was looking to move toward retirement, but also always hoped the space could continue the restaurant’s legacy. The location has been a restaurant in the village since the early 1940s, when it opened as The Betty Lane Restaurant.
“So this was the best phone call I could receive,” she said about hearing from Karn about the business purchase.
In recent weeks, Shaffer has spent much of her time at the West Liberty restaurant training alongside her mentor. March 1, the business officially changed hands to the new ownership.
“We have quite the shoes to fill, as Cindy has worked very hard to make the restaurant what it is today,” Shaffer said, who noted that the business name will remain the same.
“I feel comfortable here already and so excited. It’s been fun getting to know all of the customers. Everyone has been so welcoming.”
Oelker, who even worked at the restaurant as a teen when it was called Dajolee’s Restaurant, is looking forward to her new role at the Liberty Gathering Place. She will still be involved behind the scenes, including continuing to make her famous pies for the establishment.
“What could be better than that? I get to make all the pies and not have to do all the paperwork,” the 1972 West Liberty-Salem High School graduate said with a chuckle.
Her peanut butter pie is a Champaign County Fair award winner. Oelker’s many other pie flavors include a wide assortment of flavors, such as black raspberry, fresh strawberry, cherry, red raspberry, butterscotch, chocolate peanut butter, coconut, peach crunch and apple crunch, with updates on the restaurant’s Facebook page about the flavors for the day, along with other daily specials.
Shaffer said the restaurant’s made-from-scratch favorites will continue on the menu, and new ideas they’d like to try are incorporating locally-sourced ingredients and upcoming farm-to-table type meals, along with special breakfast buffet days.
At home, the Zanesfield area resident said she and her fiancé, a food service auditor, and their 12-year-old son Brantley, a student at Benjamin Logan, enjoy creating new recipes together.
“We rarely eat out; we love to cook, trying new things and coming up with new dishes,” she said. “So owning the restaurant is going to be such a fun extension of that.”
Shaffer related that her family will be a part of the regular business operations, similar to Oelker’s family over the years.
Oelker said her son Shane and daughter Amber grew up at the restaurant, with Shane at one point serving as a grill cook and her daughter working as a waitress. More recently, Oelker’s grandson “is a pro at rolling our homemade noodles,” she said.
Before she purchased the Liberty Gathering Place, Oelker began working at Green Hills Community in 1983 as a food service director.
“Everyone told me you should own a restaurant,” said the West Liberty resident, who noted that her longtime experience in the kitchen was learned from her grandmother, Thelma South.
Then from 1988 to 1995, Oelker operated the Graystone Restaurant, which she purchased from Pat and Burley Hall. In April of 1995, the operation moved to the Dajolee’s location and the former Graystone Restaurant closed its doors.
When Oelker purchased Dajolee’s in 1995 from Delbert and Kathy Fullencamp, she decided to host a contest for her customers to help determine a new name for the restaurant.
“The new name of ‘Liberty Gathering Place’ was a great fit, since it’s the place where people would gather in downtown West Liberty. We want people to be able to come in and mingle and stay awhile. We want them to feel welcome.”
It’s been enjoyable watching family and friends having establishing traditions of gathering at the restaurant to catch up and to celebrate special occasions, like birthdays or anniversaries, with one couple even getting married in the banquet room at the facility, Oelker noted.
“Then they would come back each year for their anniversary dinner,” she said.
The 111 N. Detroit St. restaurant is open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, and 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Carry-out or dine-in are available, and their extensive menu is featured on their website, www.libertygatheringplace.com. Call (937) 465-3081 to place an order.