Customers at Ann’s Place always have supported the family-owned diner on South Hawkins Avenue.
The loyal following that has lasted more than 30 years has grown since the triumph — and tragedy — that unfolded on the same day this summer.
Owner, Josephine “Ann” Harris, 70, will be remembered for her good food, her kindness and her no-nonsense approach to running the diner. A cuss jar behind the counter still awaits donations from those who swear or make a rude gesture.
“My mom was wonderful. She loved every single one of her customers. She put her heart and soul in this restaurant, and I’m going to do my best to keep it going,” Wilma Parsons said.
Her mother, who founded the restaurant, died of an apparent heart attack in July, just a few hours after living a dream.
“This was her house,” Parsons said. “She commanded respect here and she got it — but she also gave it. She said in order to get respect you have to give it.”
Mrs. Harris divorced when her children were young and raised five children as a single parent. Parsons said her mother was a workaholic, but business was good to her.
“She used to tell us, ‘Unless your body is in a casket, you’d better be at work,’ so we were here every day. I even gave birth to my daughter at work. I had her in the parking lot. A paramedic from the fire department across the street came over to deliver her. I spent the night at the hospital and was back to work the next day.”
Parsons and her two sisters worked there; now it’s just Parsons. Older sister Wanita no longer works for medical reasons; younger sister Deana walked away shortly after her mother died.
Now Parsons manages the restaurant. Her twin brother, William, handles all the finances. The family didn’t want too many chiefs running the business, so they took a vote. (Another brother, Wayne, is in the U.S. Navy and is stationed in Singapore.)
The restaurant still has its regulars.
A close-knit group of about a dozen retired men gather in an area called the Dawg Pound every day to talk about everything from sports to politics. One day last week, an inflatable Cleveland Browns dawg hovered near the group. It is allowed inside the diner only when the Browns win.
Lee Haley, 71, of Akron, boasts he’s at the restaurant seven days a week, sometimes three or four times a day.
“We gather and talk about anything and everything and nothing. We just like to shoot the breeze with one another,” said Haley, whom Parsons fondly calls her godfather. “There has always been mutual respect here, and I’ve always been treated like family.”
Haley does more than just visit the restaurant.
“He helps protect this place,” Parsons said. “When we first moved here 30 years ago, he was there every night helping us get it cleaned up, getting it set up and getting it ready to open and making sure we were safe.”
Another customer, Larry Stewart, agreed the guys have a good time sitting around telling lies to each other until about 10 every morning.
A former real estate agent, he helped the family find the location of the restaurant. The building use to be a Burger Chef.
Stewart, who has known the Harris family 40 years, described the diner as a home away from home.
“We check on each other. If the owner is late or doesn’t open that day, we call,” he said. “Just like, if Lee or so and so isn’t here, we give them a call just to make sure they’re all right. We are all family.”
Workers at the Lantern, a former popular breakfast diner located on Copley Road, opened Ann’s Place 30 years ago.
“We all worked at the Lantern; we were all related,” Parsons said. “We left to attend my grandmother’s funeral, my mother’s mother, in West Virginia, and when we came back, we were all fired. So my mom decided to start her own restaurant. She and her two sisters, Mildred and Frankie, opened the restaurant.”
Although Ann’s Place could boast loyal customers, it was still one of the best-kept secrets in West Akron — until the president of the United States dropped by for breakfast as part of his two-day “Betting on America” bus trip through Ohio and Pennsylvania. That day — July 6 — changed everything.
“We are now famous for serving breakfast to President Barack Obama. Business has tripled since the president ate here,” Parsons said. “I was glad my mom lived to meet the president. She loved President Obama. It was an unbelievable experience — a dream come true for her.
“When you consider how many presidents come to Ohio, and then one to actually come to the West Side of Akron, to this restaurant, and then wait to meet the owner, it was unreal. It was quite an honor.”
She said there is talk from the community about adding an additional sign at the restaurant under Ann’s Place reading, “President Obama ate here.”
Parsons said although the menu at Ann’s Place has been the same for years, there is one new item: The President Obama special — two eggs over easy, bacon, wheat toast, grits and a small orange juice. That’s the meal the president ordered.
Haley was there.
“The president pointed right away to our group and said, ‘I can see where the trouble spot is.’ He sat with us and talked,” Haley said. “He was very friendly and down to earth and easy to talk to.”
Mrs. Harris’ daughter recalled being stuck in traffic on her way to work that morning and seeing police cars and several black sedans in the restaurant’s parking lot.
“I called Larry Stewart at the restaurant and asked what was going on,” Parsons said. “Did someone get shot or arrested? Why is the parking lot filled with police cars and why is there so much traffic? He said the president was coming and he didn’t have time to talk. He hung up.
“I was mad that he hung up on me, and I called right back. He said, ‘Seriously, Wilma, the president of the United States is coming.”
Stuck in traffic
She said the next thing she knew, she got a call from the Secret Service telling her President Obama was at the diner and wanted to meet the owner. She said she would love to get her mom, but was stuck in traffic around the corner.
Mrs. Harris wasn’t at the diner and hadn’t been there since a fall and heart attack in December and recent heart surgery. But she had been out of the hospital and was recuperating and had done well at therapy just a few days prior.
“Akron police escorted me through the traffic. I called mom on the way to pick her up. I asked her if she was dressed, and she said yes, then I told her the president wanted to meet her,” Parsons said. “She said, ‘The president? The president of what?’ I said, ‘The president of the United States.’ ”
Parsons said her mother was making a fuss, wanting to wash her hair and dress up more.
“I told her she didn’t have time, so she slipped on her shoes and was ready to go,” Parsons said. “She was all smiles when she arrived at the restaurant. I have never seen her so happy. She said it was a chance of a lifetime.”
‘Loved the president’
Haley recalls the Secret Service telling Obama the owner of the restaurant had arrived and they were going to get her, but the president stopped them and told them no. He insisted on getting her himself, and he walked over to the car and helped her out.
“Mom was so excited,” Parsons said. “The president was kind, personable and really handsome. My mom loved the president. They hugged and she was beaming.”
Several photos were taken.
Mrs. Harris and her family were on every news station, talking about her meeting with the president. Her sister, Frankie Adkins, who had moved to Oklahoma because of health reasons, said her sister was ecstatic over meeting the president and described the visit as a highlight in her sister’s life.
The excitement proved too much.
“I think it was a combination of the excitement and the heat,” Parsons said. “After everything settled down, mom just didn’t look right, so I called paramedics.”
Mrs. Harris died a few hours later at an Akron hospital.
“When Mom had a heart attack last summer, she saw me crying and told me to save my tears because when she dies she was going out with a bang,” Parsons said. “And I’ll be darned if she didn’t do just that.
“She met the man she admired most on earth, then that same day she met the Lord,” Parsons said. “She also brought a white funeral home [Hummel] and a black church [Holiness Church of Christ, a block away from the restaurant] together. The funeral home said they had never taken a white body to a black church for a funeral service.”
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or email@example.com.