If you live anywhere near The Maid-Rite Sandwich Shoppe, it’s not unusual to be told, when talking with someone who has too far to travel to make regular visits, “Thank goodness I don’t live closer to The Maid-Rite. I’d weigh 500 pounds if I did.” Living so close to a Darke County institution whose reputation lives up to its billing does have a drawback or two. Becoming spoiled by having ready access to the diner’s slightly-sweet loose-meat sandwiches, creamy shakes, and Coca-Colas over crushed ice that—for some inscrutable reason taste better than Coca-Cola anywhere else—is a drawback one must bear while calling Greenville, Ohio home. Family owned and operated since 1934, The Maid-Rite Sandwich Shoppe is a destination diner known to inspire cravings far beyond the confines of its brick exterior.
Steve Birt, former Chief of The Greenville Fire Department, can attest to the reverence paid to The Maid-Rite. Birt was at the helm of the department in 1993 when the restaurant caught fire. Birt remembers, “I had just become chief, and my first fire was [The Maid-Rite]. I thought, ‘My God, if I let The Maid-Rite burn down, I’ll be run out of town!’ I think every fire department in the county called and wanted to help save this Greenville institution.” Such is the popularity of the quirky diner that many a storyteller in the area has tried to claim that an ownership share was in the family somewhere deep in his lineage. Whether it’s this one’s great-grandmother or that one’s long-lost uncle, there are enough supposed former Maid-Rite owners to account for dozens of actual restaurants. It seems that everyone wants a piece of the little brick landmark.
I thought, ‘My God, if I let The Maid-Rite burn down, I’ll be run out of town!.’—Steve Birt, Former Greenville Fire Chief
Or maybe it’s that everyone wants to leave a little piece of themselves behind at The Maid-Rite. Covering nearly every available surface of the building are thousands of wads of chewing gum. It’s common opinion that a new visitor can’t really said to have been initiated until she has contributed to the multi-colored mosaic of gum. Lovers have even been known to declare their romantic involvement by spelling out one another’s initials separated by an arrow-pierced heart in strategically placed wads of gum.
But having ready access to the offerings of The Maid-Rite isn’t just an unending stream of gustatory pleasures and gum-related hijinks. There are real responsibilities that come with being amongst the Maid-Rite initiates. John Hottle grew up in Greenville and in the booths of The Maid-Rite. Hottle, a former Ball State University football player, explains the large orders the coaching staff would place with him when they found out he would soon be heading home. “One time during the 2007 season, I mentioned to some of our coaching staff (including Defensive line coach Phil Burnett, who is now at Morehead State, and Brady Hoke, head coach of Michigan) that I was heading back home after practice. Knowing that most of them were familiar with Greenville, I mentioned grabbing some Maid-Rites. Coach Hoke suggested they give me a cooler to fill with the tasty sandwiches and bring them back for the staff. Upon further discussion, coach Burnett proclaimed, ‘I eat those little [suckers] like Certs.'” Needless to say, Hottle returned to Ball State with a cooler full of Maid-Rites in tow.
This love affair with the Maid-Rite is no one-way relationship, however. The Maid-Rite is a strong member of the Darke County community and supports dozens of local initiatives every year. Marilyn Delk, former Executive Director of The Darke County Center for the Arts (DCCA) explains the important role the restaurant plays in the community. “The Maid Rite Sandwich Shoppe embodies the heritage of our community. Therefore, when I served as Executive Director of DCCA, an organization dedicated to enhancing cultural enrichment in our community, I solicited financial support from this cultural icon; that support was almost instantly forthcoming, and has continued to the present day. DCCA announces sponsors of its four Arts-In-Education presentations to students in all grades of each Darke County and Greenville City public school district. The only sponsorship announcement that draws instantaneous spontaneous applause is ‘The Maid-Rite Sandwich Shoppe,’ an indication of the multi-generational support for this institution that simply continues to do well what it set out to do many decades ago. DCCA urges visiting artists to visit this local icon, and they almost always respond to the suggestion by enjoying a Maid-Rite or a Big Jim or a milk shake. They sometimes even compose a song or write a poem recounting the experience, but even though I have pleaded, I have not as yet received an ‘Ode to the Maid-Rite’ or ‘The Maid-Rite Blues’ to share with you.”
You don’t have to be local to love The Maid-Rite. But being local—and having one’s childhood memories tangled up in that little brick building covered in gum—does make it more likely that the restaurant will take on a significance that’s reminiscent of family. For the locals who move away, it’s not an overstatement to say that a return visit home won’t be considered complete until The Maid-Rite is checked off the list. Chris Lockhart, a former resident of Greenville, expresses that sentiment nicely. “When I was in college, the first thing I did when I came back to Greenville was see my parents. The second thing I did, 15 minutes later, was go to The Maid-Rite.”
Darke County institution indeed.