Rows of lunch boxes line the shelves at Etta’s Lunchbox Cafe in New Plymouth, Ohio. Others dangle from string tied to the restaurant’s rafters, showcasing images of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Barbie, Bobby Sherman, Laugh-In, Peanuts and Popeye.
“When visitors see the lunch box they once carried and remember the third grade and their best friend, it takes them back to a simpler time in their life,” says owner LaDora Ousley, 45, who’s happy to show off her collection of more than 650 lunch boxes, spanning a period of 100 years. “That makes my day.”
That’s one reason why Jack and Shirley Riggs, both 60, of Columbus, Ohio, keep returning to Etta’s. “(The lunch boxes) remind me of what we had when we were little,” Shirley says. “It’s always worth stopping here because they have such neat stuff—and the food is good.”
Ousley started collecting lunch boxes while living in Columbus in 1986, buying a Super Friends lunch box for $1 at a thrift store. As a child, Ousley carried a 1968 Chitty Chitty Bang Bang lunch box, but today she says her favorite is a white, vinyl Dawn (a 1970 Barbie-like doll) lunch box and thermos, a gift from a customer.
“This is a way to show them off and bring tourism into the area,” Ousley says. “I want to help the economic development of this area.”
Born and raised in neighboring Vinton County, Ousley decided to leave behind her job as senior regional director at Franklin University in Columbus in 2002 to follow a dream of opening up her own cafe with a lunch box theme. She stumbled upon a vacant 9,000-square-foot building in New Plymouth that once was a general store and later a movie theater. “I saw the vision immediately when I walked in,” Ousley says. “I said that all the lunch boxes are going here.”
She named the cafe in memory of her late grandmother Etta. “When I could barely stand up, my grandmother would put me on a step stool and teach me how to cook,” Ousley says. “Today, I still love to cook.”
Although she does help out in the kitchen, she spends most of her time greeting customers and entertaining them with her uncanny ability to recall the year each lunch box was created. Most customers are tourists or outdoor enthusiasts who are drawn to the Hocking Hills area for its natural beauty. That’s why the cafe motto is so appropriate: “We’re not your mom, but we’ll pack your lunch.”
Weary hikers often refuel with specials like Ousley’s Hobo Ham Steak (1-inch-thick bologna sauteed in onion) and reminisce about their old lunch boxes while they wait. “The brown bag lunches look like the ones your mom packed when you went to school,” Ousley says. Each one contains a surprise, which usually is a small piece of candy.
Helping to pack those lunches is Sue Stevens, a short-order cook at Etta’s since 2005. “Working here is interesting because you get to meet all kinds of people who come from everywhere to see the lunch boxes,” she says.
Ousley expects her business to break even this year. “This is my passion,” she says. “I have done everything I can to keep it open, even working various jobs on the side.”
Clearly, Ousley has fun combining her two passions—the lunch boxes and the cafe. However, costly renovations to the building have postponed the purchase of lunch boxes to add to her collection. But occasionally a visitor will listen carefully as Ousley shares her lunch box wish list, and then surprise her with a new one. For now, what she wants most is a successful cafe—and perhaps an elusive Beatles lunch box.