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Downtown Businesses, Photo Essay

Cowan’s: The Place To Meet

I met with Tom and Rachel, the owners of Cowan’s Restaurant, on a Monday morning. I didn’t know much about the history of the place, all I knew was that Cowan’s i=was famous for their Mile High Pie. There are groups of people who come through the Visitor Center daily, looking for the “restaurant with the pie.” Just go up the street, is what I tell them. But now I will be able to share with them a little bit more of the history of the place…

This historic building on Elm Street has been used for various purposes throughout the years. Henry J. Dickbrader, who was the Mayor of Washington from 1893 to 1898, operated a hardware store from 1890 to 1905. In the late 1920′s the building became home to Mealler’s Restaurant for several years, then Elm Street Cafe and eventually Cowan’s Cafe, in 1973, owned by John Cowan.

Tom’s parents, Oma & Jerry Gildehaus, bought Cowan’s in 1977 after Oma’s many years working at the previous restaurants. Because they, their children, family and friends worked hard over the years, Cowan’s quickly expanded,  and became known as “The Place to Meet”.

How did Cowan’s became famous for their Mile High Pie? When Oma baked pies for John Cowan, he disapproved of her wasting the meringue. When she bought the restaurant, she kept using more and more meringue until she came up with the Mile High Pie. A sweet rebellion 🙂

In 2002 Jerry had a stroke, and Oma and Tom took over the restaurant. Tom grew up in the restaurant business. He started working as stock boy when he was 9, and then he moved up to dishwasher, cook and manager. Cowan’s was his second home. The family lived downtown, so Tom used to walk to school at Borgia, and then walk to work.

Oma and Jerry instilled some very basic principles in Tom, like always buying top quality ingredients and cooking every order to order to ensure the best, freshest food possible. They also taught him to appreciate the customers and employees, because without them there would be no Cowan’s.

Meet Cowan’s owners: Tom, Rachel and their adorable daughter. How did they meet? Rachel began working at Cowan’s as a server when she was 16, this was her first job. She grew to love the restaurant, the family and … Tom. So, after a long courtship they were united in marriage in 2004.

In late 2006 Jerry had another stroke which left him unable to work. Oma continued to keep the restaurant open with Tom and Rachel, until she became ill in 2008. She tried to teach Tom how to make the pies, but this did not come naturally to him. Rachel stepped in and in no time she was making delicious pies just like Oma.

When Oma passed away in 2009, the restaurant was in limbo. However, the photo in the right top corner made Tom realize that they had to stay open. This picture from 1920s, which shows people eating at the restaurant, reminded Tom why they were there. In July 2009 Tom and Rachel purchased the restaurant to ensure that Cowan’s stays alive in beautiful Downtown Washington.

It is important to Tom and Rachel to stay in Downtown Washington and offer home cooked food at reasonable prices. Although there are things like free wireless internet and bar codes on the tickets, the made-from-scratch pies, specials and family recipes are still used every day.

Meet La Donna. She has been working at Cowan’s for nine years. Tom values his employees, because without them and the customers there would be no restaurant. Debbie Hagedorn, another long-term employee, has been working at Cowan’s all the way back with Oma and John Cowan. This was her first job and she still continues to work for Tom and Rachel, but not without the occasional tease about her being here before Tom was even born.

Cowan’s is famous for their home-cooked food, everything is made to order. There are regular customers who eat at the restaurant 2 or 3 meals a day, and people who have been coming here for years.

Cowan’s belongs downtown, it has always been here. In 2010, Tom and Rachel remodeled the upstairs and made it their home, so they don’t have to commute far to get to work. They even sold one of their cars, because almost everything they need is within walking distance.

Next time you are having a not-so-good day, just remember that “Pie Fixes Everything” Where to get it? At Cowan’s, the place to meet!

Cowan’s restaurant is located on 114 Elm Street, Washington, MO. You reach them at 636.239.3213.  Their working hours are as follows: Wednesday-Saturday: 6 a.m. – 8 p.m., Sunday – 6 a.m. – 7 p.m., Monday & Tuesday – Closed. Visit them online at www.cowansrestaurant.com and like their Facebook page to stay updated on weekly specials and current promotions.

About Slava

I am a twenty-something Bulgarian girl in the USA, re-discovering the world through the lens.


8 Responses to “Cowan’s: The Place To Meet”

  1. A great story. I loved going to Cowan’s as a young child in the late 70s and 80s with my great grandma and love going there today with friends and family. So many memories ties to those walls.

    Posted by Lynn Wagner | July 17, 2012, 3:37 pm
  2. Lovely tribute to a great family business. I remember Oma well…and went to school with lots of the Gildehaus kids. Thanks, Slava!

    Posted by Donna Cregger | July 17, 2012, 8:45 pm
  3. I’ll always remember Cowan’s!

    Posted by Bryan Odom | September 21, 2012, 1:11 pm
  4. Also, a few years back…..the show Town Haul, that used to be on TLC, came to Washington & remodeled the restaurant. That should’ve been mentioned in the article as well. Anyways, Cowan’s is the best!

    Posted by Becky Jenkins | April 13, 2014, 2:42 pm


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