COAL TOWNSHIP - There was a sense of nostalgia in every bite. A memory of growing up around mom's dinner table. A taste of pride.

A theme that weaved in and out of conversation during "The News-Item's 2014 Business Roundtable: Local Favorites" quickly became evident - this was the taste of home.

On March 7, representatives of 11 local restaurants and food producers gathered at the Northumberland County Career and Technology Center (NCCTC) for the eighth annual roundtable - which, this year, was more about the dinner table.

Participants delivered their food products fresh for the two-hour discussion and taste-testing session, while students from the school's culinary department helped ready the goods for presentation and also created a few dishes of their own.

A mixture of coal region cuisine, Pennsylvania Dutch classics and delectable desserts created a spread worthy of the Food Network. Eight staff members from The News-Item's advertising and editorial departments engaged in conversation with 14 representatives of the participating businesses about the origin of their dishes and what makes them unique. Also attending were NCCTC administrative director James Monaghan, program coordinator Traci Beck and culinary arts instructor James Schiavoni, along with a number of his students.

Coming home

In reference to the hamburger pea gravy provided by Mary Lupold, owner of Annabelle's Family Restaurant, Trevorton Road, Coal Township, Brian Masser said it was "just nostalgic. I haven't had it in 30 years." Masser was present with his brother, state Rep. Kurt Masser, representing the Masser Family's three restaurants, banquet hall and farmers market in the Shamokin-Paxinos area,

In telling a story about a customer of Tudor House Pies, owner Daniel Ross said the man purchased three of his milk pies because he hadn't eaten them in three decades and "he wasn't going to miss out."

From conversations with non-locals, Kurt Masser said he's been told the lower anthracite region is a "food destination."

"People are coming from out of the area because we have a great selection of different restaurants to chose from," he said.

Brian agreed, but noted a challenge for local restaurants, too.

"It's getting harder and harder to find independent restaurants," he said. "You travel anywhere, and it's all chains. It's harder to compete."

Geno Welsh knows that challenge, too. But he wanted to take it on as well, and moved back to the area after college to open Brewser's SportsGrille in Coal Township more than five years ago.

"We (this area) are known for restaurants. There are a lot of restaurants with family history in the area," he said.

Welsh, son of the former owners of Bonanza, has been around the food industry his whole life.

"Instead of going to a big city and just being a number, I came home where everybody knows your name," he said.

Merely an appetizer?

The News-Item chooses a theme for each year's Business Roundtable, then gathers experts to discuss the topic. It's the centerpiece of each year's Business Review edition, published in March.

The idea of featuring local food products was certainly a hit, publisher Greg Zyla told the "Local Favorites" participants, and hinted that The News-Item may try to expand on the concept.

"We're hoping to go forward with this in the future, where we can take it and make it a two-day affair," he said. "(We want) to get all the people who make specialty foods and present them to the public. We want to have people coming in testing out what you make, buying what you make."

Zyla said he was impressed by the collection of food provided for the roundtable.

"You really do a great job in what you offer the public," he said.

Help from school

The local restaurants and food producers who participated brought their goods to NCCTC the morning of the roundtable and, with help from Schiavoni and his students, the food was kept warm and then presented buffet style in the school's restaurant.

The students made the mashed potatoes served with the hamburger pea gravy and also produced a few food products of their own, including guacamole made in front of the audience. (See separate story.)

After welcomes, introductions and the student demonstration, it was time to eat. While the amount of food made it a challenge for participants to try everything - many did, if only few bites.

As the meal wrapped up, participants discussed their products and the others they tried that day. It made for an interesting conversation considering competitors were seated across the table from one another, but it was a fun and light atmosphere - naturally, with food involved.

Some provided every last detail of their recipes, while others preferred to keep their family secrets safe.

The right ingredients

Earl Sheriff, owner of Irish Isle Provision, Coal Township, brought chicken bologna and regular beef bologna with cheese.

The unique chicken bologna is made from chicken breast and thighs to give it moisture, he said.

"We experimented with a couple different recipes, and then we came down to one we liked. We tweak it here and there," he said.

The idea of chicken bologna was developed when Sheriff noticed his female customers didn't purchase much regular bologna.

"We thought they might try the chicken," he said.

Rita Timco, owner of Rita's Bakeshop, brought sour cream cookies, a best seller at her Coal Township business, and apple pies with homemade crust. She uses local apples and an original recipe.

Welsh and Tammy Wetzel, kitchen manager, brought a variety of Brewser's favorites for sampling: the Texas Rodeo Burger, SwissShroom Burger, Frisco Melt, chicken monterey and homemade chips.

Each burger is a half-pound of flame-broiled beef. The Rodeo Burger is topped with cheddar cheese, applewood smoked bacon, a specially made BrewBQ sauce and a fried onion ring; the SwissShroom Burger is topped with Swiss cheese, sauteed onions and mushrooms; and the Frisco Melt is topped with Swiss cheese, sauteed onions, Thousand Island dressing, lettuce and tomatoes, and is served on two slices of Texas toast.

"The key is experimenting," Welsh said.

Brewser's Facebook page has a challenge for customers to develop their own burgers, and sometimes the restaurant gives them a try, he said.

The best-selling chicken monterey is made from a secret recipe of French dressing and spice rub, and it has a taste Welsh's friends have attempted to replicate outside the restaurant - with no success, he noted with a smile.

Born from 'necessity'

Cindy Carpenter, owner of the Whatnot Shoppe Cafe in Shamokin, and her daughter Suzanne Conley brought a roast turkey wafflewich. As you might imagine, in a wafflewich, two freshly made Belgian waffles replace the bread.

This particular wafflewich includes fresh roasted turkey, hickory bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise and mustard.

The idea of using waffles in place of bread originated out of necessity. Carpenter's six children, including four boys, would devour loaf after loaf of bread. One day when there was no bread left in the house, she made waffles for lunch, but her kids didn't want them the same old way. Then it hit her: put peanut butter and jelly on them.

"They absolutely adored it," she said. "And we just kept playing with it."

Carpenter first sold vegetarian wafflewiches in 2002 at her restaurant at the base of a ski mountain in Vermont. When she relocated back to Shamokin, where she grew up, she thought a turkey version would fair better in the coal region.

Many compliments were given to the wafflewich by the roundtable participants.

The Massers brought chicken potpie, a family recipe passed down from generation to generation and one of the top sellers at Masser's Family Restaurant.

"The main thing is getting the dough right and having good, fresh broth," Brian Masser said.

He said chicken potpie is the most popular "by far" of Masser's other potpies - beef, ham and turkey. And chicken and waffles and porkchops are the most popular meals overall at the restaurant.

The chicken potpie was a favorite at the roundtable, too.

"I don't eat potpie, but it was very good. I could have eaten that all winter long," Welsh said about the need for "comfort food" during such cold, snowy conditions.

John Kiersnowski, co-owner of One Smart Cookie in Coal Township, brought wedding soup made by his wife, Suzanne. Made from scratch, it is one of One Smart Cookie's most popular soups, but others sell well, too.

"It's just amazing how that phone rings and people ask what the soup is (every day)," he said. "This area is a soup area."

Ross and his daughter, Gina Ross Moyer, owners of Tudor House Pies in Sunbury, brought a melt-in-your-mouth coconut cream pie.

Coming from a long line of bakers, Ross said he started baking in the 1970s after his mother died.

"The only way to get good pies then was to bake them myself," he said.

Ross described his customers' reaction to his popular milk pie, made from leftover crust, plus milk, sugar, flour, cinnamon and butter.

"Once you explain it to people, they had 50 names for it: poor man's pie, milk pie, depression pie," he said.

Traditional favorites

Mary and Dave Lupold, owners of Annabelle's, had a hit with their hamburger pea gravy.

"Unless you're from Line Mountain School District, you don't know what it is. It was a once-a-week thing in Line Mountain," Mary Lupold said.

She said she grew up with the food.

Eric Gammon, an employee of Anthracite Provision, brought kielbasa loaf and smoked kielbasa. The recipe is secret, he said, but it's an item that's in demand by many customers - and by his college-aged daughter, who enjoys a weekly delivery.

Phil Scicchitano, owner of Scicchitano Buono Pizza in Kulpmont, provided pizza and doagies, and Sonya and Dan Lebo, owners of Dals Pizza in Trevorton, brought homemade rolls, but weren't able to stay for the roundtable.

'Phenomenal'

As the taste-testing session wrapped up, some participants enjoyed an impromptu tour of NCCTC's expansive kitchen and high-tech greenhouse.

Moyer said the roundtable was a "phenomenal idea."

"I'm a big Food Network person and a big foodie," she said. "I hope it expands."

Zyla said that's the goal, because local restaurants and food producers have a lot to offer.

"This area, the coal region, has some really great cuisine," he said.

Zyla said the willingness of participants to take part in the newspaper's taste-testing shows "how much you believe in your product."

"We're going to tell everybody in this area about it," he said.

Thank you, participants!

The News-Item offers a special thanks to the participants in this year's Business Roundtable.

In the midst of their busy daily routines, these folks stayed up late and got up early to prepare dishes especially for our "Local Favorites" taste-testing session at the Northumberland County Career and Technology Center (NCCTC). They offered even more time in engaging in an enlightening discussion about their food products and, of course, we all enjoyed the delicious fruits of their labor!

A special thanks as well to NCCTC administrative director James Monaghan and program coordinator Traci Beck, and to culinary arts instructor James Schiavoni and his students for helping the participants present their foods and for preparing a few dishes of their own!

Greg Zyla

News-Item Publisher