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Family Pancake House celebrates 50 years

Lots of things have changed in the 50 years that Bob Mathwig has owned the Family Pancake House restaurants.

As Mathwig will tell you, there’s lots more government “red tape.” There’s many more regulations about employees — what ages they can start working and how many hours they can work. And there’s even more rules about what you can serve and how.

But one thing’s stayed the same.

“We still use the same pancake recipe we used the day I started,” Mathwig said. “Some things — the good things — never change.”

Mathwig is owner of the Family Pancake Houses in East Bremerton, West Bremerton, Port Orchard, Redmond and Edmonds. His career in the restaurant business started in 1963, but he learned about working long before that.

“When I was just a kid, I wrapped meat in my grandpa’s meat market at night,” he said. “He paid me $5 a week. And on the weekends, I’d get a dollar for scrubbing and waxing the floors.”

He graduated from Lincoln High School in Seattle and had planned to go to junior college in Everett. But when he went to enroll, the college classes  were full. So he went to work with his father hanging garage doors.

A few years later, he was talking about becoming a dump truck driver, when a man at the Lake City overheard him and “told me that was too hard of work.”

“The man said, ‘I’ve got a restaurant in Bremerton I’ll sell you,’” Mathwig recalled. “I told him I didn’t know anything about cooking. He said he’d teach me.”

So for a week, Mathwig worked in the kitchen with the man and then decided to buy the restaurant. He sold his 1958 Corvette for $13,500 and got a bank note for $3,500, and with his parent’s co-signature the Family Pancake House in Bremerton was his.

The original restaurant was down the street from where it is today on Kitsap Way. And in those days, Mathwig worked all shifts, often times from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. six days a week. He cooked, washed dishes and did the maintenance around the place.

“I had one day off and that was so I could do the paperwork,” he said.

In the 1970s, he added Family Pancake Houses in East Bremerton, Port Orchard and took over those in Redmond and Edmonds.

At one time he had restaurants in the Rainier Valley and in Kenmore, but when things went bad with a business partner, those were split up and then later sold.

As a businessman, he credits some of his success to diversifying. Besides the pancake houses, he operates the Arena Sports Bar in East Bremerton, the FPH Construction Company and he owns an apartment house, a self-storage business and is a partner in a couple of hotels.

“My real success is because I’m (financially) conservative,” he said. “I pay for things and I don’t try to leverage my investments. It’s made a difference in times like the most recent downturn in the economy.”

He also credits the staffs at his restaurants with his success.

“To make it 50 years in the restaurant business is pretty much unheard of,” he said. “I’ve been lucky because I’ve had people who have stayed with me. I have one couple in Seattle who have worked 40 years for me.”

In the early years, the restaurants were truly just pancake houses, serving breakfast-type foods all day long. But Mathwig knew that to stay competitive, he had to add lunch and dinner menus.

Today, they serve a wide range of food and have their own homemade salad dressings and gravies. And the sausage they serve is made specially for them. By far, the crowd favorite is still buttermilk pancakes and Swedish pancakes, he said. Their busiest times are Saturday and Sunday mornings.

“Today we do in one Saturday what it took us a month to make when I started in this business,” he said.

As for Mathwig, he rarely eats at one of his own places.

“I love our food,” he said. “But when I go in, I can’t enjoy a meal because I’m looking around to make sure things are running smoothly. And so often, people know me and they come up and talk and I can’t eat my food before it gets cold.”

He does, however, still cook — at home.

His wife of the past 20 years, Kristi, was severely injured when thrown from a horse five years ago and has limited mobility. He likes to make her eggs, hash browns and pancakes on Sunday mornings.

He employs more than 300 people in his businesses and the paperwork he used to do — payroll and reconciling accounts — takes two full time people and help from a third.

And while he has seven children from three marriages, he’s uncertain of the future of the restaurants.

“There’s nobody to follow in my footsteps,” he said. “None of them have an interest in this business.”

But Mathwig can’t see himself ever retiring, either.

“I’ll never retire-retire,” he said. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

He’s often seen around his businesses in a checkered flannel shirt with a tool box, fixing what needs to be fixed.

“I hate desk work,” he said. “I’d rather be out and about. But I still do all my own leases and I haven’t raised any rents in five years.”

For  now, he’ll keep going to work every day, other than the vacations he takes.

He and his wife enjoy trips to Maui where they were married and they frequent their ranch near Sun Valley, Idaho, where they have horses and raise cattle.

“I love being on the ranch,” he said. “But Bremerton and this area has been good to us. This is home and I can’t see not being right here.”

Local Family Pancake Houses are located at 3900 Kitsap Way and 4115 Wheaton Way in Bremerton and at 1034 Bethel Ave., in Port Orchard. To look at a menu or see the hours, go to www.familypancakehouse.com.

 

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