Four bar stools face the Early Birds Breakfast kitchen, and the only thing better than the view from there is the smell of bacon frying.

A diner who sits in one of those seats at the counter, rather than at one of the 14 tables strategically placed around the restaurant dining room, can look just to the left and see cooks in branded t-shirts and comfortable jeans or sweats cooking up farm-fresh eggs and sizzling breakfast sausage.

On a recent Thursday morning, Gavin Benner, 51, took the seat farthest to the right. He wasn’t hungry just then, but he comes to the restaurant every day for sweet tea. He lives just down the street and has been coming since Early Birds opened in St. Louisville in 2008.

That was “back when it was just Sara and Elizabeth,” Benner said, referring to co-owners Elizabeth Ernest, 47, and her sister, Sara, 50.

Benner, originally from Newark, is one of many regulars. Just like Early Birds, his place down the street sits in the village of St. Louisville — population 362 — north of Newark and south of Utica. 

Early Birds is so popular on Saturday mornings that some customers wait in the parking lot until tables open up in the dining room. Credit: Alan Miller

Benner was a customer of the ice cream shop that occupied 8290 Mount Vernon Road before Early Birds moved in. In the past 15 years, he’s seen the restaurant grow into not only a food lover’s favorite, but also a community hub.

“Sometimes, if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t eat,” Benner said. “There’s not much around here.”

The menu features classic breakfast choices, such as pancakes, egg sandwiches and omelets. It also features more exotic dishes, like the “tot stack” – tater tots with sausage crumbles, cheese and onions under sausage gravy and eggs. 

Every weekend brings a new special. Among them recently were lemon-blueberry French toast topped with whipped cream and a spicy chicken chipotle burrito smothered in sausage gravy.

Gravy is the kitchen’s specialty. It’s made from Sara and Elizabeth’s father’s recipe, and the dishes it adorns are hefty – and popular.

The secret ingredient to all Early Birds dishes, though, is kindness.

“If you can’t come in and be friendly, you can’t do this job,” Elizabeth Ernest said.

“You get treated like family here”

As much as there is to eat at Early Birds, there may be even more to see.

The walls are covered with signs and pictures, including artwork by very young children. Some are endearing, like the one with a plate of bacon and eggs next to a rooster. Above them are the words “Early Bird.” All four sides of the painting say “Great food, Greater people.” 

Some of the signs might draw a laugh. A picture of a chicken includes the caption: “Rise and Shine, Bitches.” Another shows two big birds, an egg and two chicklets and says “Hot Chicks Inside.”

On a kitchen wall opposite the stove, signs exclaim, “YEAH MON,” “ONE ❤️LOVE” and “JAMAICA.” That’s because the staff takes an annual group trip to Jamaica during the last week of April. This will be year five.

There’s also a refrigerator in the kitchen, in direct view from the bar seats. It is covered in pictures. The one of a tree centered at the top carries the message: “LIFE: If you’re not AMAZED, then you’re not paying attention.”

A lot of the fridge photos are of Elizabeth and Sara’s nephew, Cash. “He’s the love of my life,” Elizabeth said. “He walks on water.”

To the right of the bar stools is a big whiteboard, which doubles as a spot for weekly special listings and customer reviews.

A common theme among the reviews? Hearts.

“BEST place for birthday breakfast! ❤️ Yum,” one says. It is signed “K+R.”

“I LOVE EarLY BirDs,” wrote a presumably young Frankie, who accompanied her signature with seven hearts. 

Another diner named Lexi had equally passionate feelings for the restaurant. She signed, “I LOVE YOU,” and she, too, added seven hearts next to her name.

Dwayne Glassburn is another superfan.

“If I ate somewhere else, I’d feel like I was cheating on them,” he said.

Glassburn, 49, has been coming to Early Birds for the past year and a half. All of the staffers call him “Bink,” which is a nickname that has stuck since his parents got in an argument over his pacifier when he was a small child.

“You get treated like family here,” Glassburn said. “They treat total strangers like family, too.”

In turn, customers have started treating Sara, Elizabeth and company like family, too. All of the signs in the restaurant were gifts. Same with all of the coffee cups. Early in the Early Birds journey, customers asked the team if they needed mugs, and Sara and Elizabeth accepted them. Now, they have “a shit-ton,” Elizabeth said.

Many of the mismatched mugs look like those you’d find in anyone’s kitchen at home. You could be handed a University of Akron mug, for example. Or, if Sara deems you to have an outgoing personality, she might hand you one with the city of New York on it.

“We all hug, all the time”

Glassburn described Early Birds as “peaceful.” 

Maybe that’s true for customers and staffers on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, when the restaurant opens at 5:30 a.m. sharp. For the kitchen crew, that means a 3:45 a.m. arrival. It stays open on those days until 11:30. If the early wake-ups fatigue the workers later in the morning, it doesn’t show. The workers chat, sing and even dance among themselves through shifts.

Weekends, though, can be hectic.

Michele Weisgerber, left, and Halona Hurst hug “all the time.” Credit: Alan Miller

On a recent Saturday, at about 8:45 a.m., a shout shot from the main entrance to the kitchen: “There’s two in six! There’s one at the bar!”

The booming voice announcing new customers came from Early Birds breakfast hostess Halona Hurst. The wait staff scurried over to each newcomer with smiles and fresh coffee.

Hurst, 18, has been on staff for two years. When she’s not directing restaurant traffic, she is bantering with customers or hugging them. She received four hugs in an hour’s span that Saturday morning. Two came from server Michele Weisgerber.

“We all hug all the time,” Weisgerber said.

Weisgerber, 40, works at Early Birds Breakfast on weekends only. She’s been doing so since she was 27. In her other job, she works as a housing quality standards inspector. Her side gig is more than just extra work though.

“This is my favorite place to be,” she said. “It’s perfect.”

Doors open at 7 a.m. on weekends. The place is packed at 9 or 9:30. Sometimes, there is a wait.

When diners enter a full Early Birds, they are directed to a small whiteboard that functions as a sign-up-yourself waitlist. Then, they wait in their cars in a parking lot filled with pickups and a few Harleys just outside the restaurant.

When a table opens up, one of the employees – usually Hurst – uses a microphone in the kitchen to broadcast table openings to the parties outdoors waiting to hear their names on loudspeakers attached to the building.

Home away from home

In his book called “The Great Good Place,” sociologist Ray Oldenburg describes something called “third places.” The book came out in 1989, but people are still using the term today.

A third place is away from work and home. It’s a home away from home where you go to hang out in your free time. Think bookstores, hair salons, bars and coffee shops.

Third places have specific characteristics, Oldenburg wrote. Among those characteristics are that they are places where status is irrelevant; conversation is of the essence; the mood is playful.

A 2022 study by Pennsylvania State University and Syracuse University researchers found that rural areas “have substantially fewer third places than their urban counterparts.”

But St. Louisville has Early Birds Breakfast, where couples, families, groups of teens and adult friends all can be seen on a given weekend morning, typically in flannel or t-shirts and jeans, chatting nonstop among themselves and with staffers.

The restaurant has 14 tables scattered throughout the room, along with four bar stools at the counter. Credit: Jack Nimesheim

Elizabeth Ernest guessed that 60% of the customers are regulars. The restaurant keeps a “low profile” by making zero marketing efforts beyond having a Facebook page for updates.

And as for being a home away from home, the place looks like a ranch-style house from the outside. The kitchen is open. And there are pictures of people everywhere, including on the refrigerator.

It feels like grandma’s house during a family reunion.

After finishing his sweet tea, Benner decided that he should probably get going. He is a drywaller, and while he didn’t have the busiest day ahead of him, he had some work he wanted to get done.

As he headed toward the door, eight heads from the kitchen perked up.

They shouted in unison.

“Bye, Gavin!”

Jack Nimesheim writes for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation and donationsfrom readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.