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Prapai Rin­genberg opened the Coffee Cup Diner in Hillsdale. Facebook

Prapai Rin­genberg, affec­tion­ately known to those in the com­munity as Pai, leaned back in a faded blue chair in one of Hillsdale’s beloved hole-in-the-wall diners.

Coffee Cup Diner is her legacy in the quaint com­munity she now calls home. The small restaurant is nothing close to spa­cious, yet she said it manages to attract hun­dreds of regular cus­tomers and curious vis­itors each week.

“When I heard that there was a diner in Hillsdale that served Thai food, I was imme­di­ately intrigued,” sophomore Carrie Williams said.

Rin­genberg pur­chased the diner, which used to be a dining car, in 1999 because “the price was right and the oppor­tunity was there.”

Though Rin­genberg had cooked in and managed restau­rants across the country, she had always wanted to own a coffee shop. So when she opened Coffee Cup, as a small coffee shop shortly after set­tling in Hillsdale, she felt like she had accom­plished one of her aspi­ra­tions.

Today, Coffee Cup not only serves coffee, but also tra­di­tional diner food and Ringenberg’s spe­cialty Thai dishes.

“It’s a local hangout — you grab a quick bite to eat and a cup of coffee,” she said.

Rin­genberg hasn’t always served the cus­tomer-favorite Thai food, though. She only began because of con­tinual cus­tomer requests for “Pai’s famous Thai.”

“I went from serving it from one day, to two days, to every day,” Rin­genberg said, laughing at its pop­u­larity.

It was in Bangkok, Thailand, she said, where her love of cooking developed. In her accented English that speaks to a dif­ferent time and place, Rin­genberg said she learned to cook Thai food from her family before she moved to the United States. Forty eight years later, Rin­genberg is still cooking the same dishes.

Rin­genberg moved to the U.S. when she was 17 years old, fol­lowing in the foot­steps of her older sister who had already settled in Vir­ginia.

“I was excited to move to America,” Rin­genberg said. “I was poor and had no home in Thailand.”

Rin­genberg said it was hard to adjust to living in the U.S. at first.

“I didn’t know any English,” she said. “That made it very hard.”

The oppor­tu­nities she looked to find here were every­thing she had hoped for, she said. Her talent in the kitchen allowed her to succeed both as a cook and a manager in several dif­ferent restau­rants. Even­tually, work brought her to Hillsdale.

Rin­genberg goes back to Thailand to visit her rel­a­tives every five years, and  said she hopes to visit them again this summer.

“I miss my rel­a­tives, and some­times the food,” Rin­genberg added. “But this is my home now.”

Rin­genberg quickly became an integral part of the com­munity, and not just because of her diner’s cuisine. According to Hillsdale alumnus Mason Stuard ’14, Ringenberg’s open and approachable nature makes her an invaluable part of Hillsdale’s com­munity.

Stuard, who worked for Rin­genberg for two months after his grad­u­ation, remem­bered how even when he was a cus­tomer, Rin­genberg would sit and talk with him.

“She’s warm, open, and giving,” Stuard said. “Everyone who comes in feels special.”

Though Rin­genberg has expe­ri­enced unimag­inable trials throughout her life — the death of a son and a knee oper­ation with its accom­pa­nying set­backs — her drive and joy are tes­ti­monies to her unwa­vering faith in God, according to Stuard.

“Even though she had a hard time, she doesn’t wear that on her sleeve,” Stuard said.

Hillsdale res­ident Cyndi Arm­strong, a close friend of Ringenberg’s, said she would never forget the day Rin­genberg found out her son had died.

“It changes you,” Arm­strong said. “I can’t even imagine.”

Rin­genberg con­tinued to exude incredible gen­erosity and kindness to everyone around her, though, according to Arm­strong.

“She cares about so many people,” Arm­strong said. “She’ll do any­thing for anyone.”

Rin­genberg, however, said she receives more from the com­munity than she could ever give.

“They’re like family,” she said. “If I ever need any­thing, they’re here. This is a small town with a very caring heart.”

Rin­genberg said she hopes to begin training someone to succeed her and take over the man­agement of Coffee Cup within the next five years. She said she wants to enjoy her grand­children and travel, but her plan is to stay in Hillsdale.

“People will miss her tremen­dously [at Coffee Cup],” Arm­strong said.

Stuard said regardless, Rin­genberg will con­tinue to do what she’s always done: feed people and connect with them.

“Pai is Pai,” he said. “She has a beau­tiful nature about her. That will never change.”

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Kaylee McGhee
Kaylee McGhee is a junior at Hillsdale College, majoring in Politics with a minor in Journalism. This is her third year writing for the Collegian and served as last semester's City News Editor. Kaylee is currently studying in Washington D.C., where she works for the Weekly Standard and contributes to the Collegian as our D.C. correspondent. Kaylee has also worked as an editorial intern for the Detroit News. Follow her on Twitter: @kmcghee04 email: kmcghee@hillsdale.edu
  • Penny Swan

    My favorite place to eat in town, amazing food and really good coffee!!