If any patrons ever left hungry, it was their fault. The Smorgasbord restaurant offered a sumptuous feast in Stow. In fact, there were too many choices.
More than 100 dishes were served each day on a bountiful table that introduced customers to the concept of buffet dining. Food that wasn’t imported from overseas was prepared in a basement kitchen by a coterie of cooks.
The Smorgasbord opened in 1939 at 3983 Darrow Road in a stucco building that was the former site of the Motor Inn, a popular roadhouse.
“People traveled on Sundays to the Motor Inn or the Smorgasbord,” said Ken Shuman, 91, of Stow. “The highways got busy. … They called them tin-can tourists. They had cars with running boards. They had trunks on the back.”
Shuman’s uncle, L.E. Stanford, owned the Motor Inn building, whose main section was a 100-year-old home.
In 1929, a worker was trying to change a tank for the kitchen range when the cap blew off. The furnace ignited the escaping natural gas.
“It burned to the ground,” Shuman said.
The building was a total loss at $10,000. A new Motor Inn was built but it didn’t last long and a new restaurant rose from the ashes.
Lillian Jae, a New York native who grew up in Cleveland, opened the Smorgasbord after operating the Park Hotel tearoom in Wadsworth. She envisioned a fancy restaurant with exotic foods.
Capitalizing on the Scandinavian custom of presenting appetizers, the Stow restaurant set up a long table and filled it with plates. Some of the fare included Norwegian sardines, Nova Scotia lox, Oysters Rockefeller, Clams Casino, caviar, pickled herring and smoked salmon.
Guests could feast on the smorgasbord and order off a regular menu, which had such dishes as chicken, ham, steak, lobster, fish and lamp chops. Food was prepared in the basement and sent upstairs on a dumbwaiter.
Decorated with a Scandinavian motif, the restaurant had four dining rooms, white tablecloths, an open fireplace and candlelit ambience. It was open six days a week and closed on Mondays.
Cars jammed the parking lot. Reservations were preferred, but drop-in guests were welcome to wait. They helped themselves to complimentary punch served in a crystal bowl.
Stow resident Arleen Shuman, 86, the sister-in-law of Ken Shuman, worked at the Smorgasbord for about three years during World War II when she was a student at Stow High School. Her mother, Marie Cross, and two sisters also worked there.
“Oh, it was fancy,” she said. “It had to be just right.”
Lillian Jae ran a tight ship, but she was a good businesswoman and kind to workers.
“Every Monday, she would take her employees to a real nice restaurant so that we could see how they served,” Arleen Shuman said. “It was kind of a training thing.”
Her sister Jean Theiss, 82, of Coventry Township, was 9 or 10 years old when she started to help out at the restaurant for 25 cents an hour.
“That was a lot of money,” she said. “I wasn’t a server. I was just a ‘do it all.’ Pick it up. Bus tables. I wasn’t old enough to serve.
“There was no playing around like there is in a lot of places today.”
Theiss fondly recalls the Smorgasbord corn fritters served with maple syrup. “I make those today,” she said.
In close quarters of the hot kitchen, workers occasionally got into squabbles, proving the adage that too many cooks can spoil the broth.
“I remember the cooks were always quitting,” Arleen Shuman said. “Mrs. Jae would have to come and do the cooking — or talk to them and have them make up.”
She won’t ever forget that day in 1943 when she learned that her boyfriend and future husband Ted Shuman, a sailor, was shipping out to war.
“I was working and he said he was leaving,” she said. “Everybody wanted to know why I was crying.”
Founder Lillian Jae died in 1949 at age 49 after a two-month illness. Her brother Leonard Simon and his wife, Virginia, operated the Smorgasbord for several years until Lillian’s son Hugh Jae assumed control in the 1950s.
Tallmadge native Don Howard, 80, of Suffield Township, worked at the Smorgasbord for three years in the early 1950s. His mother, Olia Howard, was a cook there for 27 years.
Howard washed pans, polished brass, brewed tea, made punch, cut potatoes, carved watermelons, cleaned shrimp and operated the deep fryer. He cut slots in shrimp, inserted bacon pieces, rolled them in batter, and fried them.
“They couldn’t hardly keep it on the buffet table,” Howard said.
He remembers the sweet rolls made with cinnamon and butter and coated with crushed pecans and a glaze of Karo syrup, pure maple syrup and brown sugar.
“Their sweet rolls were just out of this world,” he said.
Pat Renta, 78, of Cuyahoga Falls, was a Tallmadge High student in the early 1950s when classmate Don Howard told her that the Smorgasbord was hiring waitresses.
“We were expected to do the best,” Renta said. “And we were just not allowed to go out there and wait on people. They took us to a back, side room where we were trained with a tray and a glass to practice lifting the glass.”
She wore a white uniform and a color-coded apron that determined which dining room she would serve. The place was immaculate and the operation ran smoothly.
One of the things she remembers most is the giant baked salmon with the tail and scales still on it, a regular feature of the buffet table.
“He was called Freddie. I mean, he had a name,” she said. “He was as long as the board was wide.”
The Smorgasbord was so fancy that it perplexed some customers. Take the caviar.
“People thought it was blackberries and they put whipped cream on it,” Renta said with a laugh.
Following meals, waitresses brought a finger bowl with a linen napkin in hot water. Some mistook it for soup.
“They were in a different world,” she said.
Renta worked at the restaurant until she graduated from Kent State in 1957.
She taught English at Stow High School, moved to Wyoming, raised two kids and returned to Ohio in the 1970s. To supplement her income as a substitute teacher, she returned to the Smorgasbord.
By then, John Baran and his wife, Ann, a former Playboy bunny, were the owners. Business had fallen in recent years and they were hoping to restore the Smorgasbord to its former glory.
Sadly, it didn’t work out.
Renta remembers New Year’s Eve 1973 as the final night. John Baran announced that the place was closing, fed the staff and opened the bar.
“Then we threw our glasses into the fireplace and made a toast,” she said.
The Smorgasbord shut down after 34 years. Anthony Parasson bought the building, and it’s been a Parasson’s Italian restaurant ever since.
Although it’s been gone for decades, the Smorgasbord provides a feast of memories.
“All of the food was just wonderful,” Ken Shuman said.
“That was an elite place,” Arleen Shuman agreed.
“Oh, gosh it was nice,” Jean Theiss said.
“It really went over big,” Don Howard said.
“The Smorgasbord was like family to me,” Pat Renta said.
Mark J. Price is a Beacon Journal copy editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.