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I grew up in a small rural town in Michigan. I’ve been gone for more than 20 years, but change is slow there and it still has a familiar feel when I go back. Still, I was surprised when I recently visited and went in to town for breakfast. We walked into a locally owned diner, the bell jingling as we opened the door. At the front of the restaurant sat about six “regulars”. I could tell immediately. They had the posture of people at home, speaking only now and then since not much changes in the 24 hours since they last sat at that table. Most of them had coffee cups with their name on them. The waitress called them by name when they entered or when she walked over with the coffee pot. “Hey Eugene,” she said. “Coffee?” “Cathy? Do you want some more coffee?”

This was not a new phenomenon to me. Ever since I can remember, my father-in-law has gone daily for breakfast at his favorite restaurant. My father has gone in for coffee regularly over the years as well. He says it’s a great place to find answers to about any question, since the regulars are happy to offer their advice. There are about three restaurants in this small town of about 1,000 people. Locals have their favorites, either because of loyalty to long-standing owners, food preferences or, more likely, small price differences or who’s hanging at which place.

The restaurant we went to was plain and simple. I still like that. What I was surprised by was that not only was the food good, it was incredibly cheap. We ordered an egg scrambler that was tasty and big enough for two people and it cost $3.75.  My husband went back the next day and got their breakfast special which was two eggs, hash browns, homemade toast and jam for $2.25. A gallon of milk costs more than that. A gallon of gas. I’ve had a cup of coffee that was more expensive. Never mind your vente, double skim, mocha latte. Pie there is only $1.75. With ice cream, it’s $2.25. And check out this Wednesday special.

I’ve eaten at a lot of diners and small restaurants, in towns nearly as small as this one and I haven’t seen those kinds of prices in a very long time. It’s tough to cook at home for less. The next time I’m there, I may have to sit a little longer and find out more. Now that I’m into the local food movement and the “real cost” of food, I’m really curious about their food sources and how they keep prices so low and still make a living. I’d also like to know how many small town restaurants are still out there serving food at 1980’s prices. It seems like these places are far and few between, but perhaps I’m not looking in the right spots. What do you think? Are they still out there? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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