By Erika Webb
Before State Road 415 became a busy thoroughfare, there was a place where "everybody knows your name"-- and then some.
The made-from-scratch comfort food, sense of community and atmosphere conducive to world-problem solving are reliable staples in an uncertain world.
Like famed fictional gathering places Cheers, Mel's Diner and Arnold's Restaurant, Osteen Diner draws locals, and others, like moths to an eternal flame.
Ruth Schiffermiller and her husband, Ken, had planned to move up north after he retired from the U.S. Postal Service. They'd raised their kids in "old Winter Park" in a home that had been in Mrs. Schiffermiller's family for five generations.
Family ties caused them to rethink that decision.
"All of our grandbabies were here and our youngest child was in school," Mrs. Schiffermiller said.
The couple found out about a piece of property on the river in Osteen and they bought it for their home.
"It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that comes along," she said.
As it turned out Osteen had what had slipped away from Winter Park over the six decades since Mrs. Schiffermiller's grandmother bought the family home in 1949.
"When we first lived in Winter Park, everybody knew everybody. It was small," Mrs. Schiffermiller said. "We missed that."
Gone were the fish fries in the park.
So eight years ago they had a $7,000 garage sale and made for greener grass.
"We just love the land. You open your car window and you can actually smell the land instead of car asphyxiation," she said.
Though logistically spread out, the Schiffermillers found the "community" to be very close.
"It's still very much small-town USA," Mrs. Schiffermiller said. "During the last hurricane, I think it was Fay, we were going down the road to get to the house. Ken was in front of us and I could see his taillights. Then the car went off the road. The car was stuck. We called the neighbors and they pulled us out."
That sort of thing is commonplace among Osteeners, she said.
When Mr. Schiffermiller retired in 2007, the diner was for sale and the couple decided to take the plunge. Neither of them had restaurant experience. But they had what it takes.
It was kind of always a family joke, the kids joked about it when they were young," Mrs. Schiffermiller said of her penchant for seriously homemade cuisine.
One of her four children was ill when he was young, she said, so she had to make everything from scratch.
"We ground our own grain with a whisper mill," she said. "The kids still talk about the pizzas I made. They always joked, '... when we get a restaurant'."
People come for her pies, especially the family-recipe strawberry rhubarb. They come for the apple bread pudding with bourbon, and for so much more.
"We get workers, families, retirees ... there's so much building going on out here right now," she said, referring to the road construction along S.R. 415, "I see a lot of people meeting with contractors over lunch."
The diner is a halfway point for scattered families.
"People who live in Orlando but whose parents live at the beach, they meet here -- in the middle -- and hang out," Mrs. Schiffermiller said.
The Schiffermillers briefly thought about changing the name to Osteen Family Restaurant, but decided some things are better left alone.
"I think we're more of an icon than we knew," she said. "I didn't realize the magnitude of it. We're always going to be Osteen Diner."
Every day sees the diner bustling but Saturday and Sunday are the busiest.
"On Saturday when you come, you always run into a friend," Mrs. Schiffermiller said. "They'll talk in the aisles."
A word of caution: Do not sit in "the mayor's" booth.
"Kelly, we call him the mayor, he has his booth and if someone's in it, he doesn't like it," Mrs. Schiffermiller said laughing.
On a recent early Wednesday morning, the diner's veteran server Jo Duncan stood pouring coffee when Kelly Fore and his wife, Alida, came through the door. A group of diners were in his booth.
He took it remarkably well.
Mrs. Fore said of the 365 days in a year her husband visits the diner at least 350.
"He loves to talk and he has a crowd up here he can talk to," Mrs. Fore said.
And he is mayoral. Mr. Fore has a commanding presence, a quick wit and easily detectable intelligence.
The couple has been part of Osteen Diner's regular crowd for about seven years, since moving to Osteen from Oviedo.
"It's the food and the people and Jo," Mr. Fore said when queried about what's made him such a regular. "There's a big crowd up here and we all get together and talk."
Ms. Duncan has worked at Osteen Diner since about six months after it opened 14 years ago. She said some of the crowd favorites, besides the pies, are the pork roast, country fried steak and burgers.
What keeps her there?
"All the regulars," Ms. Duncan said grinning. "We're all like one big family."
Anyone will say her food is outstanding, but there's something else about Ruth Schiffermiller.
She's calm and caring. Like any good mom, her very presence soothes.
"If someone doesn't show up for a while, we're calling them to ask, 'Can we bring you some soup or mashed potatoes?'" she said.
Computers, cell phones, texting and general scurrying constitute what Mrs. Schiffermiller calls a "drive-thru society." Mostly, she prefers old-fashioned communication. Following her dream has taught her much.
"I've learned that people really do still care about other people," Mrs. Schiffermiller said. "There still are a lot of good people, and people are realizing the old ways are still good. People say it all the time. That's what I don't want to lose here in Osteen."