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Jimmie Kramer's Peanut Bar in Reading, Penn., is known as the 87-year-old establishment where patrons can eat peanuts and dispose of the shells on the floor. It's a cute tidbit, but it's like describing Christianity as “about the guy in a robe walks on water and stuff.” It might be accurate, but there’s more to it than that.
The Peanut Bar is located on Reading's main street, called Penn Street, which has seen brighter days. The area has little pedestrian traffic, with a mix of retail ventures ranging from a rental center to a wine bar to a psychic and a nightclub -- a mix of the economic spectrum within a few hundred feet.
But inside you feel as if you've walked into a lively tavern where everybody knows your name like "Cheers."
Like I wrote before, the restaurant is well known for the fact that patrons are encouraged to throw peanut shells on the floor but it's not the publicity idea that wouldn't keep customers coming back for a few decades.
In fact, the peanut-shell practice is just one of the gimmicks the founders came up with. You also drink beer out of fishbowls, the piano is played upside down, and a past owner once put out an advertisement for a “job” of eating peanuts at the bar. Gimmicks might pull people in the door, but they're not going to stay too long.
Michael Leifer is the third-generation owner and quite possibly the reason why people keep coming back, almost obsessively.
If he doesn’t know a patron, he gets to know them. He makes it his mission to know something about each customer. It’s good business sense, sure, but it’s mostly because he really just loves meeting people. He's basically a younger version of Santa Claus, jolly and passionate about making people happy. He has the beard and rotundness, too, but clearly not the centuries on him.
He could have moved the restaurant or sold the business, but he's doing what he loves.
Just like the story of the Maine fisherman, if he's offered to sell his fishing business then what would he do with the money? Go fishing. For him, this is exactly what he'd love to do.
Being a restaurant, the menu extends beyond peanuts. The dishes are diverse, ranging from ethnic to standard bar fare with enough change in the flavor to make it a unique dining experience. Start with a Middle Eastern tasting plate or the buffalo chicken wings and move on to heartier dishes like the Lemon Parmigiana Flounder and finish with homemade ice cream cake/pie stuffed with pretzels.
Michael has pulled together a crew who are all devoted to making the patrons happy. Everybody who works there has the simple thought just for everybody to be happy.
Behind the bar is Peter, who’s been there for 30 years. He's a mix of a 1920s elegant bartender and a calm, eccentric butler. He has an air of politeness that comes from a different era. You know he’s deeply part of the culture, but you can tell something is different about him.
The wait staff clearly has been here awhile, running back and forth in a syncopated pattern that has a coordination like bees in a hive. It’s all second nature to them, and they all know everyone personally.
There are patrons who not only come to celebrate birthdays, but every family birthday. This is the tradition. This is where you see your family.
Some regulars just love being there and are there to suck in the environment, their own elixir of life. One grandmotherly type had a bag of tricks and would give out toys to any child who seemed a bit bored. But she did it with such a flow that seemed natural.
And orchestrating it all, we go back to Michael Leifer, manager and protege of his father, Harold. Harold was the type of man whose last meal was literally in this restaurant. He wanted to sit right in the center and watch everybody having a good time. It's what he lived for.
Michael, inherited that “joie de vie.” A joy of living.
Everybody watched “Cheers” growing up, wishing to be somewhere everybody knows your name. This is that place.