INDEPENDENCE — Amy Baker recalls the day she saw a tape of her husband’s graduation that his parents kept, where a youthful David was making a bold prediction.
“On his graduation day, he said his plans were to own his own restaurant. It tripped me out when I saw that tape,” Amy said.
“It’s always been a dream. It’s all I’ve ever done,” David added.
The Bakers, together now 20 years, are living the dream as owners of the Starduster Café.
The iconic landmark just off the runway at the Independence State Airport since 1989 was actually between owners and had sat vacant for 18 months when David saw his opportunity. With line cooking experience at J’s Family Restaurant and Louge and Andy’s Café under his apron, Baker was ready to fulfill that dream of owning his own restaurant.
Unfortunately, David said the sale was for the building only, not the land itself. No institution would loan him the startup money to purchase the Starduster.
“Twenty banks turned us down from all over the region,” he said.
The former city manager of Independence, Greg Ellis, however helped him apply for and expedite a COGS (cost of goods sold) loan. Then with some help from his father Jerry and other local investors, David was able to cobble together enough to complete the purchase.
As he developed his own menu, David said he actually had a small fan club of loyal diners from J’s and Andy’s who followed him to the Starduster.
“For the first couple years, they helped me get through,” he said.
To make sure they stayed and the Starduster attracted new diners, the Bakers introduced an expansive menu.
“I wanted to have a really big menu so people would have lots of options,” David said. “Sometimes that made it really tough. I’ll be cooking for 10 people, and they want 10 different things.”
While some restaurants have three omelet choices, a skillet and couple scramble options, David’s menu has 15 omelets, 12 skillets, a full sandwiches section (even bagel sandwiches) and more.
“It’s a pretty extensive menu,” he added.
“It’s grown that’s for sure,” Amy added. “It started out pretty big, four to six pages. And then it’s turned into eight pages. It’s intense. It’s all him. I just type it up and put it together.”
Everything is home-made fresh from the soups and gravy to the cinnamons rolls and biscuits.
The problem David ran into was taking anything off the menu as customer tastes changed. His menu maintains several original recipes and newer options, such as canned corned beef, and the improved (or so he thought) homemade corned beef slow cooked for 18 hours.
“In the beginning I didn’t know better,” he said. “But people liked the canned. Some people came in just for that.”
The same thing happened with his popular chicken fried steak. Originally, it was pre-frozen chicken fried steaks, deep fried. Then he started preparing his own, from fresh top round, on the grill. Both options remain popular today.
“So far it’s been going good,” David said. “The community has been super supportive. The Independence Airpark residents, people flying in, the college students, the locals in downtown.”
He prefers if you come to eat at the Starduster Café that you bring your appetite.
“I focus on people who like to eat. I’m not a dainty cook. Huge biscuits and gravy, big ole piles of hash browns,” he described.
However, with experience cooking at Elmers, Shari’s, and the Original Steakhouse, he knew diners also appreciated a scaled back menu option.
“So, we have whole other menu that focuses on people with a small appetites, called the light eaters menu. It breaks meals down in half,” he said.
Everything was running smoothly, their reputation fully established with the regulars steering new diners to the Starduster via Facebook community page. Then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down dining in options across the state. During the lock down, David and Amy stayed open, making deliveries and to-go orders themselves.
“The first month, we were averaging 10 to 15 people a day, just enough to keep the lights on, basically,” David said. “But then all of a sudden, people started coming out of their shells. On the weekends we were getting 100 a day on Saturday and Sunday. After Mother’s day last year people started getting comfortable, so we were able to bring back a couple employees.”
“So we weren’t killing ourselves,” Amy added.
During COVID, David said sales were down 80%. Now that they’re fully open, they’re up 20% before the shutdown.
“It’s like people are being awesome and supportive. It’s like, we want you to stay here,” Amy said. “So, we’re going to come support you.”
They’ve since had to hire two more hostesses and there’s now three cooks for the busy weekends. However, David can’t help but feel that Stardusters is one of the lucky ones to remain open.
“When the government was shutting down dining in, I really feel for those restaurants that have been forced to shut down and have lost everything they’ve ever worked for and built for,” he said.
For maintaining their loyal customer base and continued excellence, the Monmouth-Independence Area Chamber of Commerce named the Startduster Café its best new member and its 2020 Business of the Year. Because of the lock down in 2020, the Bakers received their physical award this year, an unexpected surprise.
“I was shocked,” Amy said. “The whole time we’ve been open we’ve never won anything. It was nice because it showed all our hard work the community understood.”
After 16 years, the Bakers have seen the children of loyal customers come back with families of their own. Heck, even one hostesses mom used to come in when she was pregnant with her and another hostess used to come in “since she was itty bitt,” said Amy, now 38 and feeling old whenever anyone tells her they used to come in when they were little.
Now 46, David knows he can’t remain a line cook forever. With dreams of transitioning to catering and weddings, their plans to train the next generation fell through when their son decided to blaze his own path and is now making cabinets.
David said he’d like to retire when he’s 55. But he can’t really see himself doing anything else. The dream didn’t allow for other choices.
“I’m not good at anything else. This is what I’m good at,” he added.
Where: 4705 Airport Road, Independence
Hours: 6 a.m. – 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 7 a.m. – 3 p.m. Sunday
Contact: 503- 838-1781