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Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014

What's old is new again

Sunday, April 17, 2005

(Photo)
Ray Ressel Jr. poses inside the restaurant where he is recreating the pizzas and steaks made popular by his father, Ray Ressel Sr.
KELSO - Ray Ressel stood in the kitchen booking his next shipment of beef which he would hand-cut into steaks for customers. He paused long enough to offer advice to his son preparing dough for the pizzas to be served later that evening. When the phone rang, he assured the caller a table would be ready at 7 p.m. at Kelso's newest, yet oldest of restaurants, Ray's Pizza.

When Ressel and his wife, Cindy, moved back to Kelso over a year ago, he planned to build a new home and create a unique arts and antique store in the their hometown. Today, he has found himself following in his father's footsteps recreating the pizza and steaks that brought customers to the small Scott County community some four decades earlier.

"If a year ago someone would have said we would be running a restaurant I would have said no way. We had remodeled the bank to create an antique and arts and craft store, we never envisioned a restaurant." Ressel shrugged his shoulders adding, "I had spent so many years of my life in the restaurant business but here I am back in it again."

The original Ray's began in the 1960s when Ressel's father opened one of the first drive-in restaurants off Highway 61. When traffic began traveling the new four-lane Interstate 55, the elder Ressel innovated again, converting part of his home into Ray's House of Pizza and Steaks.

According to Ressel, his father's restaurant would draw customers from throughout the area and earned a reputation for quality dining. But when the elder Ressel's health began to fail, the family closed the business in 1976.

It remained closed, but not forgotten.

Last fall Ressel and his wife finished the renovation of the 85-year-old Farmers and Merchants Bank of Kelso intent on making it the home of their new arts and antique store. As a sideline, the building still sporting its metal ceiling, marble tile floor and vault, would provide a place for them to serve cappuccino and ice cream to customers.

Their business opened in early October drawing many visitors who would remind Ressel of the pizzas served up in Kelso by Ray Sr.

In response to customer demand, the Ressels added pizza to their small menu. "Fortunately I was the oldest and worked in Dad's place the last five years it was open. I knew everything Dad did to create those pizzas," Ressel said.

Not only learning from his father, Ressel also studied cooking and restaurant management after his father's restaurant closed.

The customers enjoyed the pizzas, then began reminding the Ressels about the steaks. Couldn't they add those to the menu, too?

Today the menu at Ray's Pizza offers gourmet pizza including Ray's Special, The Californian, The Hawaiian and the Mexican. There are prime rib, chateaubriand, filet mignon and porterhouse steaks all charbroiled over the restaurant's outdoor grill. Also available are chicken, seafood, appetizers, salads and to top it all off, flaming baked Alaska.

"Pizza and steaks are an unlikely combination," admitted Ressel. "But it worked 30 years ago - so why not now?"

Part of what makes it "work" is the restaurant owner's emphasis on quality. He points out the pizzas are made from scratch using fresh ingredients. "It takes longer to make and is more costly but the end product is better," he explained.

By overseeing the aging, seasoning and cutting of the prime meats, Ressel noted he can be assured of the best products. "Then when we slow cook it on an outdoor grill our customers know the steak just melts in your mouth." It isn't just the recipes the father shared with his son, there was also his attitude on running a business.

"Dad's philosophy was the customers should always leave happy," said Ressel. "A lot of people are more focused on the bottom line than on the customer. Here, we want our customers leaving happy and are willing to go a little bit further to ensure that."

And it is a family business once more. All four of the Ressels' sons work at the restaurant as well as two future daughters-in-law. They are learning the business just as he did, working in the kitchen and serving customers.

He and his wife put in long hours at the business, where Ressel offers with his easy grin: "I may have my name on the place but my wife's the boss." While he is often back in the kitchen, Ressel makes it a habit to greet customers, visit the tables and ensure they are pleased with the selections.

Currently seating about 38 people, Ray's Pizza is adding some booth seating. During pleasant spring weather, some diners are opting for the outdoor seating also available.

Opened Tuesday through Sunday, reservations are recommended for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. "Weeknights we get full but usually there is a table available. If you call an hour or two before you want to come, I will tell you what it looks like and if we can seat you. But we have had to turn people without reservations away on Fridays and Saturdays."

But even if there is a wait, the Ressels have sought to create an atmosphere to keep diners entertained. The walls of the small restaurant are lined with art for sale. There are works by local artists and craftmakers while some items are purchased from gift companies.

The bank's former vault serves as the "History Room" filled with generations of family photographs, newspaper clippings and memorabilia about Kelso and Southeast Missouri. Many of the items, Ressel notes with pride, are about his father and that first restaurant that made his name well-known as well as the new Ray's Pizza.

"Folks should make the trip and just come try us," said Ressel. "I think they will be pleasantly surprised."

For more information or to make a reservation call 573-264-1115.