When Crosby Keltner walked in to the Pancake Pantry Wednesday morning, well before dawn as batters were being mixed and eggs broken, he became the first owner of the iconic Nashville restaurant in 56 years who wasn't named Baldwin. It's that family tradition, though, that moniker "institution" that has him grinning ear to ear with the opportunity before him. Instead of opening up his own place, he chose to keep an old standby going for what he hopes to be another 50 years.
Keltner, a longtime manager at Red Pony in Franklin, bought the business and the name from David Baldwin, the current owner. The property, however, remains part of H.G. Hill Realty's Hillsboro Village portfolio.
“I am honored to be trusted with the future of this iconic landmark and am excited to play a part of Nashville’s rich history,” said Keltner, in a statement released earlier. “Pancake Pantry is a local treasure and I intend to carry on the Baldwin family’s legacy and preserve this special ‘Nashville tradition.’”
Baldwin says knowing there will be continuity was the most important thing.
"My emotions are all over the place. People are very happy, very proud that I was able to sell it in such a way that they can feel easier. Nothing’s changing. Nothing at all. Just a younger, better-looking face," says Baldwin.
Flapjacks by the stack
Opened in Hillsboro Village in 1961 by Robert Baldwin, David Baldwin's father who turned 90 on Saturday, Pancake Pantry moved two doors down to its current location when H.G. Hill redeveloped the building in 1995.
The young Baldwin grew up in the shadows of waitress apron strings, bussing tables when he was ten years old along with his brother. David Baldwin, though, was the one who stayed in the business, eventually buying it from his father in 1988 and running it until now.
"It took a long time to get to this point, mentally and emotionally, because I am so attached. But I’m getting old. I’m tore up and wore down," he laughs, still a boyish looking 63-year-old.
His father Robert came naturally to the restaurant business after his own father opened a diner in an old railroad caboose near Titusville, Florida. Robert Baldwin would go on to earn a degree from the Cornell University "hotel school," one of the first hospitality-based programs in the country. He took a job selling restaurant equipment when he met and became friends with Jim Gerding, a restaurateur in East Tennessee.
Gerding was about to open a new place in Gatlinburg called Pancake Pantry in 1960. Robert Baldwin loved the idea, and with a smile and a handshake, agreed to a franchise relationship, opening his own Pancake Pantry in a small Hillsboro Village strip in 1961. "I never saw a franchise document. Jim Gerding just said to my dad, 'You’re going to pay me a percentage for the name and I’m going to supply you with the recipes,'" David Baldwin recalls. That gentlemen's agreement still exists today, though there's some paperwork now, as does the original Pancake Pantry, which escaped the recent Gatlinburg fires.
"[The restaurant] didn’t burn down, but Mr. Gerding, who’s 88 years old this year, his house, with all his treasures from years of travel, burned to the ground. I think his heart might be broken," says Baldwin,
It was time
He knew the time would come to sell but he didn't have a succession plan in place. Neither his two kids nor the children of his brother and sister wanted to step in to the family business. Only one of his brother's sons seemed to be an heir apparent, but he tragically died young in a drowning accident.
"You know, our kids are all so damn smart. Some of them are actually geniuses, at the top of their class in college. They’re engineers, they’re lawyers, they’re artists. They don’t need to work this hard to make a living. I didn’t have any such skills, I’m not that smart," jokes Baldwin.
Baldwin met Keltner after putting out an all points bulletin among his friends. "One of my pals told me that Crosby was a great kid. One day earlier last year he said, "Hey would you consider selling?' I told him I don’t know. I'm not sure I’m ready," Baldwin admits of his early cold feet.
After hiring a broker last August to look at different candidates, he was more convinced. "Crosby being a small, family business kind of guy, and so personable, I chose him to buy it. Especially because of his willingness to carry on my tradition and keep the restaurant looking like it is," says Baldwin, adding, "That was the only thing that mattered to me. I’m not just an owner but a provider of 40 people’s livelihoods."
Today was Keltner's first day, and it was an early awakening. After closing out restaurants late at night for more than a dozen years, he now has to be up and at it well before dawn. He has to learn the recipes and how each of the seven different batters should taste, just as David Baldwin did, checking them every morning in small silver-dollar sized bites.
Keltner has already traveled to Gatlinburg to meet the "pancake godfather," Jim Gerding, who gave him a good look up and down, quizzing the new owner before giving his his blessing. Gerding's two sons, both in their 60's, were also present. Without an heir ready to assume the syrup-soaked throne in East Tennessee, they may be sizing up Keltner for the future. When asked about that, Keltner didn't hesitate to say he would more than entertain the thought.
Even though he worked a host of jobs and most recently served as general manager at Red Pony under Jason McConnell, one of the Middle Tennessee's most talented restaurateurs, the Memphis native now holds the keys to new kingdom with entrenched opinions about how everything should be done.
Keltner's first commitment is to his employees and the regular customers. He wants more locals to come and hopes they aren't scared of the long lines.
"It moves really fast," he says, smiling.