By Melanie Zuercher
NEWTON, Kan. (Mennonite Church USA)—In the spring of 2012, workers renovating a building in the 600 block of downtown Newton, Kan., pulled off an awning to reveal a visual blast from the past.
A sign painted above the doors of Peace Connections, a community peace center, and a florist business read, “Guest House” and “Self Service,” along with most of the letters of “Cafeteria.”
The Guest House and Cafeteria, a Newton social hub in the 1950s, closed in 1972. Its modest appearance belied its historic importance, ranging from its then-innovative way of doing food service to its role in pioneering racial integration.
Around 1953, J. Winfield Fretz, a professor of sociology at Bethel College in North Newton, became a partner in a Newton restaurant located a few doors down from 612 North Main. His reasons were to supplement his income so that, as he said, he could “afford to continue teaching,” and to see whether the business ethics he taught in the classroom could be applied to real life.
Later, Fretz had the opportunity to be sole owner of the business. He took the chance, at the same time converting it to something new—what we would today most likely call a buffet or smorgasbord.
When it opened as the Guest House and Cafeteria, the restaurant was the first in Newton—and one of only three in the state—to operate as self-service. (There was one in Wichita that had sown the idea for the Guest House.) It was likely also among the first to include a salad bar, offering a dozen or more choices of cold salads, pickles and relishes.
When the sign resurfaced in 2012, community people who remembered patronizing the Guest House frequently recalled the fried chicken and cinnamon rolls, as well as specific foods served on specific days, such as roast turkey on Thursday and seafood on Friday. Overall, the menu was distinguished by its home-style food. When Peace Connections director Myrna Krehbiel gathered a group in late July 2013 to share memories of the Guest House, one person compared its food offerings to “a really good church potluck.”
Another unusual aspect that Fretz introduced was the self-service honor system coffee break. Between 9 and 11 a.m. and 2 and 5 p.m., employees set out the coffee urn, creamer, pastries and pie, along with about $10 in change in a cup. Customers served themselves, on their honor to pay and make their own change.“We cannot check to the penny whether we are long or short,” Fretz wrote in Christian Living in May 1958, “but … we have been satisfied repeatedly that there is very little discrepancy in the daily cash receipts from the coffee breaks.”
James D. Rutschman was a part of the Guest House from its beginning. He first applied for the position of cook, but Fretz quickly made him the manager and offered him a partnership in 1955. This coincided with the decision to move the Guest House from its original location.
In 1957, the partners decided to integrate the restaurant, several years ahead of the national curve of desegregation in eating establishments.
At first the customer based stayed primarily white. Then African-American railroad porters—Newton is a historic railroad town with a passenger station that still serves Amtrak—found out there was a place just a few blocks from the station where they could sit down for a meal.
Roger Rutschman, James’ son, had his first job working in the Guest House, waiting tables.
“Dad would tell a story of seeing several porters walk by, several times,” Rutschman says. “He asked, ‘Can I help you fellas?’”
The porters told James they had heard the Guest House was open to everyone, but they were hesitant to enter because they saw no people of color inside. James told them to “come right in and get a bite to eat.”
“From that point on, we had a good following of railroad workers,” Roger Rutschman says.
His father reaped an unexpected benefit from this action, he adds. When James traveled to Chicago for the first time—to attend a trade show—he got off the train with no idea how to find either the show venue or his hotel.
As he was looking around the station, trying to figure things out, a railroad porter approached him. The man recognized him from the Guest House.
“That porter took Dad home, fed Dad and helped Dad find his hotel and trade show,” Roger says. “It was a really nice gesture. The porter was just appreciative to have a place to eat [in Newton].”
Fretz called integrating the Guest House the source of “perhaps the greatest spiritual satisfaction” gained from his business venture.
“As far as I know, ours is the only place in our town of 15,000 people where all races are treated exactly alike and have identical privileges,” Fretz wrote in Christian Living. “Businessmen have for years justified their own discrimination on the ground that customers wouldn’t stand for racial equality. Our own experience has proven this a pure myth.
“During the five years of operation, not over a half-dozen customers have even hinted at unhappiness because we served Negroes, while literally hundreds have expressed congratulations for our willingness to do so.
“How many customers we have lost due to the fact that Negroes, Mexicans, Indians and Orientals are served indiscriminately, I do not know; but whatever the losses, they cannot outweigh the satisfaction that has come from feeling one is doing right in the sight of God and his own fellow men.”
—Melanie Zuercher is the writer and editor for institutional communications at Bethel College, North Newton, Kan.
Bibliography: J. Winfield Fretz, “A College Professor on Main Street – Will the ideals taught in the classroom work in business life?,” Christian Living, May 1958 (Vol. 5, No. 5), pp. 6–9.
J. Winfield Fretz in his restaurant, ca. 1958.
Used in Christian Living, May 1958, front cover: “Sampling his own product is J. Winfield Fretz, co-partner of Guest House Cafeteria on Main Street in Newton, Kan. Fretz, who also teaches social science at Bethel College, testifies that the venture into the business world ‘was a delightful jump into economic reality.’ It gave him a chance to see whether the principles of fair play which he had been teaching in the classroom would work on Main Street. See ‘A College Professor on Main Street,’ p. 6.” (Photographer: Simon W. Schmidt) (Mennonite Church USA Archives)
Guest House storefront
Used in Christian Living, May 1958, p. 6: “Main Street in Newton, Kan.”
(Photographer: Simon W. Schmidt) (Mennonite Church USA Archives)
James Rutschman and J. Winfield Fretz at the Guest House Cafeteria, ca. 1958.
Used in Christian Living, May 1958, p. 6: “The proprietors of Guest House Cafeteria: James Rutschman (left) manager, served as a cook at Denison, Iowa, and Lincoln, Nebraska, during CPS days. J. Winfield Fretz (right) is founder of the cafeteria and head of the department of the social sciences at Bethel College, N. Newton.” (Photographer: Simon W. Schmidt) (Mennonite Church USA Archives)
Guest House Restaurant, with owner J. Winfield Fretz in center back, ca. 1958. (Mennonite Church USA Archives)
Buffet at Guest House Restaurant, ca. 1958.
Used in Christian Living, May 1958, p. 8: “Salad table to the left: choice of 12-15 salads and relishes daily. Steam table to right: 3 vegetables, 3 meats at every meal. Above is pie shelf.” (Photographer: Simon W. Schmidt) (Mennonite Church USA Archives)
Guest House storefront (Mennonite Church USA Archives)
Guest House (Mennonite Church USA Archives)