It’s not quite 4 a.m. on a Friday morning in Bowling Green, but the red and blue neon lights of an open sign glow in the window of a small white cottage with a red roof on the corner of Louisville Road and Old Porter Pike.
Inside Roxie’s Cottage Restaurant, the coffee pot just inside the door bubbles as it brews the first pot of the day. Next to the pot are stacks of mugs, sitting under a sign inviting customers to serve themselves. Six empty tables, each surrounded by four mismatched metal chairs, sit vacantly under ceiling fans that blow even though outside the temperature sits at just above freezing. In the back of the room is the kitchen. Bacon and sausage sizzle on a griddle in the back, across from a counter where Roxie Hatler, 92, mixes hotcake batter in preparation for the day to come.
“Just about every day is about the same,” she said.
At 4 a.m., Hatler officially opens the doors to Roxie’s. At first, only a couple of people will occupy the restaurant at the same time, their early morning visits overlapping enough to fill in on the news of the day. If traffic is light, Hatler will stand by the coffee pot or behind the register and listen to their stories, chiming in when she has something to add.
When 7 a.m. rolls around, the daily rush begins. Even the noisy brewing of a fresh pot of coffee can no longer be heard over the buzz of conversation that fills the small space. The bustle keeps Hatler occupied, running from sink to griddle to oven to plates to coffee, all the while serving her guests and making conversation when she can.
At 9:30 a.m., Hatler locks the doors. That is unless she has run out of food before that, in which case, she closes up early.
Hatler has been in food service for longer than she can remember. She moved to Bowling Green 55 years ago from Hart County to help start up a restaurant for an owner who was having difficulty making money and has been here ever since. She worked at truck stops and diners until 28 years ago when she opened Roxie’s Cottage Restaurant.
“I’ve been real fortunate. I’ve had awful good luck in the restaurant business,” she said. “It’s the good people I have, that’s what makes it.”
According to Hatler, the majority of people who frequent the restaurant are regulars. Every now and then, she gets passersby who stop in and want to try it out.
“I get a lot of workers from out of town,” she said. “They eat with me regular while they’re in town, but when they leave they don’t forget me because they tell everyone about me who’s coming to Bowling Green. So, it goes on and on.”
A distinctive electronic ring chime sounds off every time the front door opens. The chime alerts Hatler, who looks up from whatever task she is doing at the time and greets each new arrival, oftentimes by name.
Hatler says that word of mouth is the way news about her restaurant spreads.
“That’s the way to do it,” she said. “Good people, that’s what I have. The best.”
Nick Lawson, 69, is a Roxie’s regular. He eats there almost every day of the week, making sure to stop in before he starts work for the day. Lawson says Hatler has been feeding him since 1972, but it’s more than just the food that brings Lawson back time and time again.
“It’s like coming home to grandma’s,” he said, laughing. “That’s what it’s like.”
For Hatler, the restaurant is home and her customers are family. Almost everyone knows each other; they all have a favorite table and a parking spot they like. If they don’t know someone, they ask Hatler, who knows everything from birthdays and family troubles, to health issues and food orders.
“I’ve been eating with her so long, I don’t even have to tell her what I want,” said Earl Manco, 73, a neighbor and one of Hatler’s favorite customers since he started eating with her in 1962. “I just come in and she asks if I want bacon or sausage and then she makes it.”
Hatler prepares all of the food herself. She refuses to make anything instant, preferring to make everything from scratch. At the end of each day, after clean up is done, Hatler peels potatoes, mixes biscuit dough and pounds out sausage patties that will be stowed away until the next morning. She says preparing some food ahead of time makes the whole operation run much smoother.
“I do it all,” she said. “But a lot of people, they don’t know how because they didn’t come up like I did.”
Hatler says that she learned how to cook because “that’s the way it was” when she was growing up. She also went through several food handling schools, although the classes she took mostly concentrated on sanitation.
“I hold 100 percent, which I am really proud of that,” she said. “That doesn’t come easy, you’ve got to watch everything. But I’m really, really proud of it.”
Hatler has plenty of responsibilities to keep her occupied, inside and outside of her restaurant business. In addition to having her own home, Hatler owns a rental property right behind her restaurant. Until this year, she did all of her own mowing.
“I enjoy mowing and doing my work outside,” she said. “But everybody kept after me to quit, so I did.”
She still takes care of other maintenance on the property, and at her own house. Her black and white Jack Russell terrier, Squeaky, keeps her on her toes as well.
“He is feisty now,” she said, laughing. “He is — he’s precious.”
Squeaky is Hatler’s only boss. He likes to eat a lot and will sometimes wake her up early to do just that. While he eats, Hatler will have coffee and a piece of fruit before heading over to work.
“What I plan on doing is working just as long as I can, that’s my future plans,” she said. “Just staying in here and meet my good people. I hope I can do that.”
Joy Beck, 73, is one of Hatler’s customers who helps around the restaurant when she can. Beck isn’t the only one who helps Hatler. Customers run dishes to the sink in the kitchen, wipe down tables and run the sweeper so Hatler doesn’t have to do it herself.
“When this closes, it won’t be the same,” Beck said. “It can’t be like this anywhere else.”
On her birthday, customers bring Hatler flowers and cards, Beck said. The same can be said for Christmas and other major holidays. When customers go on vacation they bring back souvenirs and trinkets from their travels, all of which Hatler keeps and lines up along the divider between the main room and the kitchen. Since working at the restaurant by herself, Hatler hasn’t been on vacation.
However, she doesn’t mind staying put.
On the rare occasion that Hatler can’t open the restaurant, she lets everyone know and then gets back in touch with them when she returns. Although she has had many people extend a helping hand over the years, Hatler rarely takes people up on their offers to assist her outside the restaurant.
“I’m not for asking, but if I needed to, I could,” she said. “I just don’t need to. I’m very independent.”
Hatler attributes her independence to being a loner. Although she was married a couple of times, she never had children of her own. Even when she was married, she maintained her own business since she would rather be by herself.
“You get too weak if you depend on somebody,” she said, sighing.
Except for a niece and a nephew, most of Hatler’s family has passed away. She has outlived all of her closest relatives, therefore, the restaurant and the customers who frequent it have become her family.
“I think it’s because that my family are gone and they’ve taken me in and I’ve taken them in and that way you don’t feel all alone,” she said. “I don’t feel alone. I just don’t feel alone.”