Big T bids farewell

Landmark Maid-Rite diner closes in Toledo

PHOTO PROVIDED -- Members of the Bearden family gathered for morning coffee at Big T Maid-Rite in 2007. The Toledo diner was a popular destination for locals including multiple coffee groups. Pictured are (left to right): Mary Lynne Bearden, Cecil Bearden, Chuck Bearden, Chester Bearden, and the late Carl Bearden.

A landmark diner along the historic Lincoln Highway will remain closed in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown earlier this year.

Big T Maid-Rite in Toledo, Iowa closed its dining area on March 17 following a disaster proclamation by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.

A few days later on March 22 it was announced that all operations including carry-out food orders would end until further notice.

Then in mid-July current owners Brad and Robin Crawford released a statement informing patrons that the business would not be reopening in the future.

“It is with heavy hearts that we have to tell you that Big T will not be able to reopen,” the Crawfords said in their statement. “COVID-19 took a huge hit to our business after being closed to indoor seating on March 17th. Opening at 50% or even at 100% was not feasible for us after taking social distancing for the safety of you and our employees into consideration.”

NEWS CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO -- A shot of Big T Maid-Rite on a sunny day in 2020. Sweet corn vendors were still out selling in the parking lot despite the restaurant's closure. Pictured in the background is Norma "Duffy" Lyon's famous Cow-Calf Sculpture.

The Crawford’s connection to the diner dates back 45 years when Robin first began a career there as a waitress. Brad also spent nearly 20 years owning and operating the business. The two thanked their loyal customers and employees for making Big T successful for so many years.

The name Big T was given to the business by Ridout when he purchased it in 1971 from Bob Scudder. He says the name came about as a hasty decision. He wanted something that would represent both Tama and Toledo and settled on Big T as a moniker that would cover all the bases.

Many who have spoken out since the closing announcement in July have expressed their hopes for someone to purchase the business and reopen a restaurant there. As of yet, it remains to be seen what the future holds for the diner facility. It’s unclear if and when the property or the business will be listed for sale.

For the Bearden family, the Big T diner was more than just a place to find a cup of coffee or a bite to eat. It provided the backdrop for many of their family gatherings and was an important avenue by which to stay connected to the community.

The Bearden family, originally from Tama, consisted of seven brothers. Six of them, Cecil, Chester, Chuck, Carl, Clyde, and Fritz, made their home in Tama County and since the mid-’90s, had been gathering most mornings at Big T around 10 a.m. for coffee and conversation. The extended family would often find their way to Big T on Sundays after church for lunch.

NEWS CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO -- Former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton made a stop at Big T Maid-Rite on October 8, 2007 on her "Middle Class Express" tour during the run up to the 2008 Iowa Caucuses. Pictured next to Sec. Clinton are former First Lady of Iowa Christie Vilsack and Ruth Harkin, a 2018 inductee to the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame.

They described how the family was so familiar with the coffee schedule that when relatives were in from out of town, they could stop at Big T in the mornings unannounced, knowing that at least some of the brothers would be there to greet them.

Unbeknownst to them, the group sat down for one last cup of coffee at Big T on the morning the COVID-19 disaster proclamation was announced in March. Since that time, they’ve settled on Cecil’s dining room table as a temporary coffee gathering destination while the pandemic is still active.

“We had a lot of fun there,” Chester said at a recent coffee gathering at Cecil’s home in Tama. “A lot of people are going to miss Big T. You get to know the people there, the waitresses like family.”

“We’ll miss the camaraderie,” Fritz said.

Big T Maid-Rite became known for a handful of signature menu items including homemade ice cream, broasted chicken, homemade donuts, the Big T Breakfast special with two eggs, hash browns, choice of meat, and toast; and of course the popular loose meat beef sandwiches the Maid-Rite brand is known for.

A postcard from the 1960s showing an earlier view of the Maid-Rite diner when it was Scudder’s Maid-Rite. The Scudder family moved the Maid-Rite business from High Street to the present location in 1955.

Over the years the Maid-Rite diner has often been the first employment opportunity for area young people, including several members of the Bearden family.

Ridout commented that he still misses running the restaurant and will be sad to drive by the place while its closed.

“It’s unbelievable how many employees have gone through the Maid-Rite over the years,” Ridout said. “I’ll miss seeing the people and the friends that I’ve acquired through the whole thing.”

The Beardens recounted how Big T was a central meeting place for a variety of people and purposes. Parents and grandparents would meet there to exchange kids who were splitting time between multiple households.

Local and state law enforcement officers often found the diner a convenient location to eat a meal and have easy access to the highway if they needed to quickly get on the road.

PHOTO PROVIDED -- Another regular coffee group that frequented Big T got together for a photo around 2007. Pictured were: Seated (L-R): A.J. Ziskovsky, the Rev. LaVern Seth, Myrle Schaffer, Duane Wood; Standing (L-R): Mike Potratz, Charles Patterson, R. Dale (Poody) Bratton, Dick Pulse, and Kyle Chaska.

Sweet corn farmers often set up shop in the parking lot that’s accessible to roadside sales in the summer.

Politicians on the campaign trail found their way to Big T to meet with voters. Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Joni Ernst have all held campaign events at Big T in recent decades.

The Beardens remember the annual Iowa-Iowa State rivalry football gameday being a particularly busy time with fans making pit stops while traveling to and from the game. For a community positioned between several of Iowa’s largest population centers, including Ames and Iowa City, the Big T Maid-Rite has been at the center of it all.

Toledo Maid-Rite through the years…

Charles Scudder operated the Maid Rite Cafe from 1946 to 1958. The Maid Rite Cafe was located on the south side of West High Street across from the court house. Charles had 2 sons, Robert and Gene. In 1955, they built the present building on the corner of Hwy 63 and Business 30. Highway 30 was being constructed during this time. Charles and his two sons operated the new building from 1955 to 1971.

NEWS CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO -- Former Pennsylvania Senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum meets with voters at Big T on September 17, 2015.

Scudder’s Maid-Rite was the only business on the strip that had a basement, which provided space to do all of the food preparation for the menu. A large pizza oven to bake eighty pies every day, an ice cream machine, meat saw and grinder, and cooling equipment were all housed in the basement. The menu was more extensive than other Maid-Rite restaurants. They sourced meat from Waterloo, using the front and back quarters to provide steaks, while processing the rest for Maid-Rite meat. They also used the broth from the meat in their chili and vegetable soups.

Dick Ridout, who owned the Holiday gas station and car wash across the street at the time, purchased the building and lot in 1971. He completely remodeled the inside and reopened for business in 1972. An addition was added to the east side of the building in the late 70’s to provide more space. Ridout still owns the Maid-Rite franchise. Big T added broasted chicken to the menu in the 80s, which remained a popular item into present day.

Brad and Robin Crawford purchased the business from Ridout around the year 2000 and operated it until 2020. Robin had been working there for 45 years, first as a waitress, then bookkeeper, and later as an owner.

History compiled courtesy of Joyce Wiese and the Tama County Historical Society.­­

NEWS CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO -- Family gatherings and celebrations often took place at Big T Maid-Rite. The late Dale Slingluff, pictured alongside his daughter Barb Tatroe (right) and his cousin, the late Floyd Manfull (left); celebrated his 102nd birthday with a party at Big T on October 5, 2016. Over 50 friends and relatives stopped by that day to wish Dale a happy birthday.

NEWS CHRONICLE PHOTO BY DARVIN GRAHAM -- The Bearden coffee group has continued to meet during the current time of pandemic at Cecil’s house in Tama. Pictured are (left to right): Chester Bearden, Clyde Bearden, Fritz Bearden, and Cecil Bearden.

Message from current Big T Maid-Rite owners Brad and Robin Crawford announcing the permanent closure of Big T Maid-Rite.

NEWS CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO -- Senator Joni Ernst made a campaign stop at Big T Maid-Rite on October 28, 2014.

NEWS CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO -- Former Arkansas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee visited Big T Maid-Rite on August 31, 2015 to meet with voters while on the campaign trail.