Hillsdale alumnus Mason Stuard ’14 reclined in his A.J.’s Café chair sporting a new undercut hairstyle he proudly did himself. His trusty cane and sidekick, York, sits beside him.
After receiving a B.A. in history from Hillsdale College, Stuard returned in July of 2015 to complete his online masters in Library Information Science from Kent State University and cook Thai cuisine at the Coffee Cup Diner, owned by his friend Pai Ringenberg.
When Stuard returned to Hillsdale, Ringenberg had undergone surgery for some tumors and had to shut down the diner for the season. After that, she opened again, but ended up with a knee injury that inhibits her standing for long periods of time and sends her to physical therapy. Short-staffed, she put up a “Help Wanted” sign in the diner window which Stuard noticed.
“He helps me tremendously as a friend. We help each other. He needs money, I need somebody to help me,” Ringenberg said.
Stuard said he became aware of the diner through Professor of Music James Holleman as a sophomore. The Thai food made him a regular.
“I have never been much for American diner food, so the Thai cuisine drew me in,” Stuard said.
The following year he struck up a friendship with Ringenberg.
“We have a relationship, like family. He calls me grandma,” Ringenberg said, adding that sometimes they get sushi in Jackson, and Stuard helps her cook fellowship dinners at their church, the Holy Trinity Anglican Parish.
“When I manage to make my way to church, I attend Holy Trinity with Pai,” Mason said.
Stuard has been cooking at the diner full-time for two months and said it fills his extra time when he’s not studying. Plus, Ringenberg feeds Stuard, which he said is nice since after hours of preparing food, the last thing he wants to do is go home and cook for himself.
Ringenberg said she doesn’t usually hire college students because of the diner’s hours — 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. — which aren’t convenient for students.
That being said, Ringenberg said she was close to students who graduated in 2014, including Whittaker and Meredith Dunn.
“I enjoy the college students,” Ringenberg said.
She said Stuard will help her through the holidays — she still has three more weeks of physical therapy and her recovery is going well.
“Pai and I are close friends,” Stuard said. “It’s nice to have that connection when working.”
Even though Stuard enjoys his work, the tight quarters coupled with the businesses of the diner can make work there stressful.
“The job is teaching me patience,” Stuard said. “But the work with my hands distracts me from the thoughts that plague me throughout the day.”
Additionally, he’s learning to cook Thai food, which he said is great.
This isn’t Stuard’s first time working in the food industry. At 16, he worked at a Red Lobster near home as a bus boy and worked at a local country club between his freshman and sophomore year of college, and his mother’s family owns a catering business.
Stuard said the most rewarding part of his job at Coffee Cup is helping a friend.
“I saw that Pai needed help. It’s a beneficial mutual thing,” he said. “I make her day easier when I’m not causing her to yell at me.”
Stuard said it’s difficult to find a balance between a stable level of emotion and the fast turnover. Sometimes five to six tickets with two to three things on them bombard him and he needs to make 18 – 20 meals “right now.”
He added that especially at lunch time, many patrons only have a half hour for lunch and they expect to sit down and get their food within 10 or 15 minutes so they can eat and get back to work.
“I’m more aware of how to be organized and prepare for a rush,” Stuard said.
Stuard said Ringenberg has been a defining part of his life off campus.
“I wanted to go down the hill and meet the people the college coexists with,” Stuard said of his college-aged self. “Pai is one of my closest local friends.”
That being said, Stuard admitted she’s “a tough cookie.”
“I mean no disrespect in saying this,” Stuard said.
Ringenberg came to the United States at age 16, graduated high school, did one or two semesters of college and decided it wasn’t for her, then got into food service. In 1999 she bought the Coffee Cup Diner.
“It’s hard sometimes dealing with the tough cookie. As a theater person, I’m already overemotional and a bit melodramatic,” Stuard said, with a grin.
Besides Stuard, the Coffee Cup staff consists of dishwasher Zach, waitress Kathy, and Pai’s oldest granddaughter Courtney. Having all five staff members in the diner at once is a snug fit, Stuard said.
“If you stand still, you get run over. I’m tall and unmovable, so I get run over,” Stuard said.
But for Stuard, cooking Thai food for Pai at the dinner is ultimately a rewarding experience, beyond
“It’s a really good business,” Stuard said. “The regular patrons get to know each other. It’s one of the joys of a small town.”