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At Lambert’s, Flying Food is the Main Attraction

July 16, 1991

SIKESTON, Mo. (AP) _ From across the country they come to Lambert’s Cafe, in search of good food and bad manners.

Mostly, the bad manners.

You don’t have to be hungry to stop at this popular southeast Missouri restaurant. The servings are plentiful, the food is top-notch Southern fare and the prices are right, but the main attraction is the dinner rolls that come flying through the air.

Lambert’s calls itself the ″home of the throwed rolls,″ and it’s a must stop for tourists on Interstate 55.

Douglas Benjamin’s family from Greenwood, S.C., on their way out West, went 100 miles out of the way to eat there.

″It’s definitely worth the trip,″ Benjamin said. ″It’s a lot of fun and you can get stuffed, too.″

They’ve been throwing rolls at the customers since 1976, when restaurant owner Norman Lambert found it difficult to wade through a heavy lunch crowd and ended up airmailing one to a customer. He says last year the restaurant baked more than 2.2 million yeast dinner rolls, which are five inches in diameter.

The delivery varies with the clientele. Sometimes the rolls find their mark quite briskly, but a recent Tuesday was not one of those times. A tour bus from St. Louis populated mostly with gray-haired ladies on the way to a nearby outlet mall filled much of the 300-seat restaurant, so the tosses were light and easy.

″On weekends we really get going, but you’ve got to be careful with the older folks,″ Lambert said.

His point was illustrated when one woman unaccountably muffed a short underhanded delivery from Lambert and walked to the cash register shaking her hands as if the hot roll had burned her.

Most of them go away very happy. The place has become so popular that the Missouri Division of Tourism is using it this year, featuring actor John Goodman in a television ad that touts Lambert’s low-brow charm.

Of course, most patrons first learn of Lambert’s from highway signs. The Benjamins got wind of it in, of all places, Colorado.

That’s one of Lambert’s secrets to success, hooking the travelers early. He’s also got roadside billboards near New Orleans, North Dakota, Jackson, Miss., and Brownsville, Texas. Only 900 miles or so and you’re there.

On the 140-mile trip south from St. Louis on Interstate 55, Lambert’s has nine such reminders. The first is 78 miles away, and the rest are in the last 30 miles past Cape Girardeau - one upside down, one touting the restaurant’s appearances on ″national television,″ and a couple teasing travelers, announcing that Lambert’s is 22 miles away, a few miles down the road past one that says, correctly, that it’s only 20 miles away.

Overkill? Hardly, according to Lambert, 57, who feels he’s got to be a little outlandish to compete with the national chains. Especially since he’s in the middle of nowhere between St. Louis and Memphis.

″It’s really kind of a matter of survival,″ Lambert said. ″That’s our trade, people on the road, and this has turned into sort of a fun place. Let’s go all-out or not at all.″

All-out means baking rolls larger than Mike Tyson’s fists, flipping them to diners, filling them with sorghum molasses and then asking a few minutes later if they want another. It means parading around the restaurant offering free appetizers such as fried potatoes, fried okra, white beans and red pepper relish, and macaroni and tomatoes from large metal bowls, and serving the coffee in 20-ounce mugs.

The emphasis is on food and fun, not frills. There are no table cloths, no cloth napkins, and the drinks are served in plastic glasses with straws.

″This is not a high-class restaurant or a ‘Would you care for another roll, sir?’ place,″ Lambert said. ″It’s a ‘hey bud,’ ‘hey dude’ place. Bottom line, there’s a lot more Chevys out there than there is Cadillacs.″

And there sure are a lot of them. In the parking lot on a slow Tuesday, there were vehicles from Minnesota, Tennessee, Indiana, Texas, Illinois, Iowa, Oregon, Kentucky, Arkansas and Mississippi.

Lambert’s is in its 50th year of operation; the new restaurant just off the interstate has been open since 1988 and has 120 employees, but it wasn’t always such a big-time concern. In the building that used to house the restaurant, there was a small room in back that provided ″banquet facilities for four,″ and an early slogan was ″We gots a maitre d’.″

These days, the atmosphere is comfortable. The walls are covered with collectibles, a piano player belts out honky-tonk tunes nonstop, a model train chugs high around the restaurant perimeter and in an area near the cash register is a miniantique store with old Coke machines, Prince Albert in a can and cigar-store Indians.

There are jokes galore. The bathrooms have small plastic bottles soliciting tips and a couple of parking spaces out front say they’re reserved for airport vehicles only.

Lambert has a way with words. The way he sees it, correcting the restaurant’s grammar - from throwed rolls to thrown rolls - just wouldn’t draw them in the same way. And he often serves a complimentary plate of fried bologna to large groups; he calls it ″Missouri round steak.″

″It’s not hard for me to be silly, because I’m closer to that than I am to smart,″ Lambert said.

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