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Valley Dairy closes Hempfield restaurant

| Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Virginia and Joseph Greubel stand with some memorabilia from their family-owned Valley Dairy Restaurants.

Customers could perch on a stool and enjoy a hot cup of coffee, a chipped ham sandwich and a cigarette when Valley Dairy first opened in Latrobe.

The dairy store that opened at 313 Main St. in 1938 has evolved into a chain of restaurants still serving customers almost 75 years later.

The bar stools have been replaced by large tables for families and the chipped ham by sandwich wraps to reach a younger crowd. But customers can still pick up a gallon of ice cream, or two.

Valley Dairy has survived by changing with the times, but that has meant closing its Hempfield site this year, officials said.

With 11 different locations in nine counties, and just under 400 employees, Valley Dairy has moved away from the dairy store concept to become known as a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, dinner and, of course, ice cream.

When Melissa Blystone, president of Valley Dairy and the daughter of owner Joe Greubel, took her post five years ago she had to examine each location with an eye toward an update.

“I hired a full-blown restaurant decorator to come up with a modern theme,” said Blystone, a mother of five who started working at the family business in high school. “The Greensburg location (in Eastgate Shopping Center) wasn't a great location for what we're trying to be now.”

The site that opened in 1971 was not highly visible from Route 30, she said.

“We're never happy to close a unit,” said Greubel, 75. “We're a lot happier opening them. We transferred the employees to other units and hope to open another unit in Greensburg or the west area” of Westmoreland County.

Blystone said there are no plans to close other restaurants but instead to open more when the economy gets better.

“We're choosy. We want to spend more time getting into the community and the area making sure it's a good fit,” said Blystone, who lives in Ligonier on the same street as her parents.

There are Valley Dairy restaurants in Latrobe and Unity, near Blairsville, and in Butler, Johnstown, Indiana, Connellsville, Kittanning and Cranberry, along with two in DuBois. The Johnstown site has been there since 1965.

Valley Dairy began with Joseph Fleming Greubel, Greubel's father. The original “Ice Cream Joe,” who died in 1991, learned to make ice cream as a boy, working alongside his grandfather, Joseph A Greubel, who manufactured ice cream commercially in Derry in 1884.

At the first Valley Dairy, “Ice Cream Joe” made ice cream at night after the restaurant closed.

“My father was such a great mentor to Melissa and me,” Greubel said.

Today, Valley Dairy draws customers for more than ice cream.

Ginger Warren, 72, of Latrobe, said she likes the food and reasonable prices, but the people at the Colony Lane restaurant in Unity keep her coming back.

“The staff knows you by name,” Warren said. “They ask where you've been, know what you order. Even with strangers, they make you feel comfortable right away.”

Tina Dick, a 22-year employee, said she strives to treat customers like family.

“We used to have to wear these little aprons with ruffles and scarves on our heads that looked like Little Red Riding Hood,” she said. She prefers the present uniform of black pants and white shirts.

“I remember when the breakfast special was 99 cents but you have to change with the economy,” she said.

Dick works at the Colony Lane restaurant off Route 30, where the walls feature memorabilia of Latrobe and the history of the Greubel family. “A lot of people like looking at that because it takes you back ...,” she said.

Karen Rodgers of Latrobe has been a customer for at least 50 years. “When I was little I used to go there. In high school I'd go there for ice cream,” she said. “The staff is so friendly and I like the soup. My mother, who is 84, always wants to go for the soup.”

Blystone has hired Domenic Meddis as training director. Meddis, a 13-year employee, said he trains staff to exceed customers' expectations.

With the training and new menus in place, Blystone said, she will concentrate on the dinner experience for customers.

The company will stay involved with Latrobe's 4th of July parade, local community days, walks to raise funds for autism and breast cancer research and local churches' fundraisers. “Our summer is just booked,” Greubel said.

Greubel, who has 12 grandchildren, doesn't plan on retiring soon.

“It really is a wonderful life,” he said. “It's fun to grow up in a business. It's something hard to put a price on.”

Michele Stewardson is a freelance writer.