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It smells like home. It tastes like home. It feels like home.
If home is familiar and home is where the heart is, then Schwalm’s is all about heart.
The official name is Schwalm’s Cleona Restaurant, and the sign says it all. Family-owned and operated, community-oriented and a great place to get home cooking, out.
There are no strangers at Schwalm’s Cleona Restaurant, just extended family members who haven’t been introduced yet.
“I think my favorite part of the business is the people,” said Andrea Schwalm, whose husband Randy owns the restaurant. “You can sit here and have a conversation, with a wide variety of people. Food is just a common denominator, and it allows people’s paths to cross.
“I’ve been working here 41 years, and I’ve actually learned a lot about getting along with people,” continued Schwalm. “You learn what to discuss, and what not to discuss. You learn to listen to everyone’s opinion. It’s a mixture of people, and you have to respect every customer.”
But do you know what else Schwalm’s Cleona Restaurant is? Consistent, and reliable.
Located at 213 East Penn Avenue, right on Route 422 between Lebanon and Annville, Schwalm’s has become a Cleona tradition and a Lebanon County institution. Everyone who lives in Cleona has eaten at Schwalm’s and everyone in the County has at least heard of Schwalm’s.
Going on 100 years young, Schwalm’s may indeed be Lebanon County’s oldest surviving diner.
“It’s a small town place where everyone knows each other,” said Schwalm, 64. “It really is, in a lot of ways, part of the community. It’s been unchanged for a very long time. The customers we used to serve as kids are now coming in with their families. I think that’s wonderful. I think it’s just the best. I’ve watched these other families grow up.
“I think the key to our success has been through not changing too much,” Schwalm continued. “You can change it a little bit. But we’ve had repeat customers for so many years. If you change too much, you lose that connection. They’re familiar with the people here, with the customers here.”
So customers may frequent Schwalm’s for the familiarity, but when they do, they come hungry.
Schwalm’s Cleona Restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. Its Pennsylvania Dutch-friendly menu features dishes like liver and onions, pork and sauerkraut, and homemade pies and cakes that customers simply can’t get everywhere else.
“It’s not a fancy place,” said Schwalm. “A familiar part of the menu is the Pennsylvania Dutch cooking, the kinds of things everybody from around here would know and remember. People can go anywhere to get current dishes and variations. Here, they get dishes they remember.”
The history of Schwalm’s and the businesses at 213 East Penn Avenue dates nearly a century, or more. In the 1930s, a service station out front with a lunch counter and a dining room inside operated at the site.
In 1974, Randy Schwalm’s mother Frances bought the property and opened what Schwalm’s has become today. Randy Schwalm purchased the business from his mom a few years before she passed, at the age of 91.
“She had been in the restaurant business all of her life,” said Schwalm of her mother-in-law. “She grew up in Pine Grove and was the oldest of 14 kids, so she knew cooking growing up. She was old-school. She worked. She had gone from one little spot to another. In Lebanon, she had worked at the Brooks House and different restaurants. She had her own restaurant at Bargaintown (Sunset in North Lebanon township). She had a lot of experience going into it.
“Some things have changed over the years,” added Schwalm. “We’re low-priced. We fought credit cards for as long as we could, just to keep costs down. Restaurants are always on a shoe-string budget.”
While there have been times over the year when Schwalm’s has been forced to change with the times, the restaurant has never lost sight of what it is. Its charm and character are directly linked to the things about it that haven’t changed.
“Since COVID-19, there’s been some days that have been very bleak,” said Schwalm. “Before we closed the restaurant, business had diminished. We were closed over 15 weeks.
“We have a lot of regulars,” Schwalm added. “We have people who go through town and they know when they stop they can get what amounts to a home-cooked meal.”
So is Schwalm’s a diner or a family restaurant? Not sure. It all depends on your perspective, your mood, the day of the week.
But the topic would make for great discussion over breakfast, at Schwalm’s Cleona Restaurant.
“It has elements of both,” said Schwalm, whose duties include, but are not limited to, baking, hostessing and paper work. “This is no landmark building. It’s been here for a long time. It’s wonderful that we’ve been able to keep this going for as long as we have. It’s an old town.
“We’re about trying to preserve the feeling of a small town and a family-owned business,” continued Schwalm. “The majority of the people in here we know by first name. You can’t just go anywhere and find that.”
Part of Schwalm’s Cleona Restaurant’s goal moving forward is to stay the way it is, to preserve the methods and customs that have worked for it in the past. If it ain’t broken, why fix it?
“Hopefully right now, the future is just going to be more of the same,” said Schwalm. “We’re trying to balance the act of keeping it the same and pleasing people who expect more than they used to. I think one of the things that has changed over the years is how you handle your employees. We appreciate them more. It’s a tough business.”
Schwalm’s is just one of those places that makes Cleona, Cleona.
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