I caught a glimpse of heaven one morning several years ago. I was sitting inside Nita’s Koffee Shop in downtown Shelton, nursing a cup of coffee.
It was around 10:00 a.m. A few tables away sat a pair of large men. They looked like they might have anchored Shelton High School’s offensive line once upon a time.
With the pies cooling on a metal counter, the two men breathed a sigh of relief as the pies’ aroma wafted across the dining room. They were grinning now. Each had ordered two slabs of Nita’s hugely popular wild blackberry pie with scoops of vanilla ice cream.
I watched in disbelief as both put the ice cream on one piece of pie, then picked up the second piece and placed it upside down on the ice cream. Then each picked up the whole thing and started eating it like a sandwich.
When they were done, after just a few minutes, they sat back in their chairs smiling broadly between sips of coffee. There was no doubt about it, they were in heaven, if just for a little while.
Nita’s cafe has that magical effect on people. It is a warm, dry place where one can find sustenance, companionship and peace. It’s a friendly place where no one’s a stranger. And in a world of knock-offs, it’s an original.
Up until early 2016, when she retired at age 98, patrons could find Nita working there Monday through Friday from a few minutes before seven in the morning until early afternoon. She came in early to get a rolling start on her fresh-made pies and soup before customers began showing up for breakfast.
Nita, who was born 18 miles up the road from Shelton in tiny Allyn, turns 100 years old on Friday, November 10.
Where It All Began
Nita never started out to be a cook or own a restaurant, she told Shelton author Carolyn Maddux. She was the youngest of eight children in her family and as a young girl helped her mother with the cooking.
She married Jim Bariekman in June 1941 and while Jim served in the Army, Nita worked as a secretary and teletype operator at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton during World War II.
After the war, Jim went to work at Simpson Timber Company’s plywood mill in Shelton while Nita was a housewife for a few years. She wanted to get back to work and looked for a job in Shelton. It was 1952.
Roy McConkey owned the Fir Drug Store on Railroad Avenue that had a lunch counter called Cabin in the Fir. The lunch counter was owned by Vera Dailey. Nita hit her up for a job, saying “I can wash dishes if that will help.” She was hired and a legend was born.
After just a few weeks, Dailey said she’d decided to sell the business. She sold it for $250 – the cost of the inventory. Nita borrowed the money from Seattle First National Bank.
Nita roasted hams, beef and chicken at home because the lunch counter had no oven. She made cold sandwiches, heated up soup and made all kinds of ice cream confections from milkshakes to hot fudge sundaes. Her clientele began to grow.
In 1957, McConkey moved his drug store across Railroad Avenue to Evergreen Square. He asked Nita to run the lunch counter at his new store and she agreed. That lunch counter featured new milkshake makers, a stove with an oven and grill, 17 stools and three booths. The legend grew.
McConkey sold his store in 1962 and the new owner didn’t want a lunch counter so Nita bought the equipment and eventually moved back across the street to the cafe’s current location.
“The old sign that’s still hanging above the restaurant says Nita’s Koffee Shop,” she told Maddux, whose book Nita’s Cooking: Reminiscences and Recipes is a gem, chock full of recipes interspersed between Nita’s life story.
The book sold out after five editions and is hard to find nowadays. One copy was listed on eBay recently for $299. But more thrifty readers can find copies to check out through Timberland Regional Library.
“To best honest I don’t know where the name came from. I guess somebody suggested it would be cute to spell coffee with a K, but I can’t believe I went along with that, and I don’t remember why I did. I do know I kind of wished I told the man who made the sign not to spell it that way, but that’s the way it is,” Nita said. It’s more commonly known as Nita’s restaurant or just plain Nita’s.
Maddux first started eating at Nita’s in the early 1980s with some co-workers at the Shelton-Mason County Journal newspaper. She became a regular and though now retired still comes in with her husband Don.
Nita reminds her of Rosie the Riveter. “Can do, that’s how I’ve always seen Nita,” Maddux said. “It’s a William Least Heat Moon-type of cafe. It’s just marching back in time. I love it. It’s comfortable.”
A Tradition Transitions
New owner Chris McGowan would agree. He grew up in Shelton and said his family began taking him to Nita’s when he was just 18 months old. “The twig with lights on it (still hanging in the dining room, by the way) is one of my earliest memories,” he said.
“It’s the heart in many ways of our community,” McGowan said. “It’s important to retain those institutions that tie our community together.”
Nita has outlived most of her original customers, but newer ones have begun to fill in. In the summer, clusters of bicyclists on their way down the West Coast often stop in for a meal. During the school year groups of students from The Evergreen State College have been known to drift in.
Over the years one could find lawyers, judges, bank presidents, shop owners, mill workers and others sitting side by side at the counter or in the dining room enjoying a meal. Young mothers often bring their toddlers in for Nita’s wonderful pancakes and hot chocolate.
And while Nita cooked, in the background her favorite radio station broadcast music from the 1930s and 40s adding a perfect touch to the atmosphere, captures the cafe’s timeless ambiance.
Nita was like a grandmother to McGowan as he was growing up. He ate there two to five days a week while in high school. When Jim’s health began to fail and he was in a convalescent home (he died in 2008), it was McGowan who brought him down to the cafe so he could hang out there when he couldn’t work any longer.
Dawn Pannell and her husband Ron are frequent customers at Nita’s. “It felt like you were having lunch at your great aunt’s home,” the former Shelton city commissioner said. “She is amazing. She was like the Energizer bunny. She was always so well-dressed, even when she was back there cooking. She just was always nice.”
McGowan has kept things much as they’ve been since the cafe opened its doors in October 1962, the day before the Columbus Day storm. The counter features 16 swivel stools and little kids still love to spin them as they walk by; and the dining room has nine tables and 26 chairs.
The menu is the same, featuring burgers, sandwiches, soups, fresh milkshakes, breakfast items and, of course, pies — all made according to Nita’s recipe book.
And the legend continues.
A gala birthday celebration is planned for Nita Bariekman starting at noon on Saturday, November 11 in the cafe at 323 West Railroad Avenue in Shelton.