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.”