Of all the restaurants throughout the history of our town, the Little Gem Cafe has been one of the most fondly remembered. Interestingly enough, the legacy of this popular cafe began halfway around the world.
The patriarch of the Maroutsos family, James Maroutsos, was born in 1879 in Achladokambos, Greece, a small village outside Athens. His father owned a roadhouse serving travelers At the age of 21, James emigrated to the United State arriving at Ellis Island in 1901. He then traveled to Chicago to live with a cousin, Pete Psyhogia.
Sometime between 1904 and 1905, James went to work for Fred Harvey (of the famed Harvey House restaurants) as a railroad dining car chef on a train that traveled between Chicago and Los Angeles. A few years later, he and his brother John opened a restaurant at 14th and State Street in Chicago, Illinois. John eventually returned to Greece and James sold the cafe to his nephew.
Maroutsos then moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he met his soon-to-be bride, Mildred A. Fleck. They were married on July 2, 1914, and James became a U.S. citizen that September. They remained in Sunfield, Michigan, where they opened and operated a restaurant together, called the Savoy.
The couple moved back to Chicago where their two older daughters, Margaret and Dorothy, were born.
In 1917, the Maroutsos family moved to Sapulpa to be closer to Mildred’s family. James went to work for a Greek restaurateur named Pete Phillips who owned the Candy Kitchen, located in the 200 block of East Dewey Ave. He and Phillips started a cafe in conjunction with the Candy Kitchen. Maroutsos later went to work for the Deluxe Kitchen on the south side of Dewey Ave. between Water St. and Park St., where Sapulpa Federal Savings and Loan was located.
In January 1922, James purchased a small cafe at 421 East Dewey Ave. Naming the restaurant left Maroutsos in a quandary because there were two names he had in mind: Savoy and Little Gem. To solve the problem, James drew the name out of a hat.
The railroad round was just a few blocks away and cafes in the area were busy 24 hours a day feeding railroad employees, as well as glass plant and oilfield workers.
Women and families seldom ate out in those days so Maroutsos hung a sign in his window, painted in gold leaf, proudly proclaiming tables for ladies were available.
The Maroutsos children—Margaret, Jimmie, Sophia, Dorothy, Judy, and Andrew—were all raised in the living quarters at the back of the cafe.
Margaret was ten years old when her father gave her a job serving customers, She continued to work at the restaurant, cooking, waiting tables, and any other task that needed to be done for 60 years. She and her brother Jimmie eventually took over the business.
In 1930, Little Gem moved to its final location at 423 East Dewey Avenue. The cafe held a remodeling “grand opening” in September 1950.
Marotusos did everything the old-fashioned way, including using a hand beater to whip the eggs. He believed in serving quality food, he once quipped, “If you can’t eat it, don’t serve it.”
It was rumored that during the “dry years” in Oklahoma, you could go to the back door and order alcohol instead of food.
I remember the horseshoe-shaped counter that allowed the waitress to walk between the two sides. The place was always packed, especially during school lunchtime. Many local residents told Sapulpa Times about their memories of eating at the Little Gem.
Stan Johnson recalls eating lunch at the Little Gem while he attended junior high school in the old Washington Elementary building (now the Administration Building). He said that the students would line up at the kitchen to place their orders, where meals were already bagged and ready to go. “It was a conveyor belt kind of thing,” he said. “They got us in and out.” If he wanted to order something special, he would order before school, pay for it, then pick it up during lunch.
Ross Rainwater enjoyed the hamburger steak that contained onions and was covered in gravy. “I thought I had died and gone to Heaven,” he said, adding that the coleslaw was wonderful, as well. Every time he eats coleslaw at a restaurant he compares it to the coleslaw he ate at the Little Gem as a youth. So far, none has equaled the excellence of the Little Gem.
Ron Gibson’s favorite menu item was the hot beef sandwich, and he said the brown gravy had “a kick to it.”
To me, the most memorable menu item was the french fries. They were lightly seasoned and were out of this world.
In 1969, a new, more spacious building was constructed at the same location, accommodating 175 people. The cafe succumbed to a slowing economy and a proliferation of fast food joints, In January 1982 the cafe closed, and in 1983 the property was sold to the City of Sapulpa. The building was demolished and the current City hall was built on the site.
The Little Gem was demonstrative of the family-owned and operated restaurants that provided their customers with the highest quality food and service possible. Like all the other mom-and-pop businesses that are now merely part of Sapulpa’s history, the Little Gem is gone but certainly not forgotten.