Thursday, October 11, 2012 / 11:54 AM
It flies high into the air, in a surprisingly delicate arc, before landing with a quiet slap in your paper plate. It is brown. It is humble. It is a pancake.
It is a pancake made by a hypnotically fascinating machine (left) that extrudes pancake batter in perfect rows of four discs. It is a pancake flipped, and soon thereafter, flung through the air with the flick of the griller’s wrist and his long spatula. It is a pancake on a mission. A pancake that, like you and I, has dreams of flying. It is a pancake that rises high, touches the hem of the Lord’s garment, then flops down to a steaming climax on your plate – if you can catch it.
It is a pancake -- and it is also a Chris Cake.
It is surprising how magical breakfast can become when it is thrown at you. That is the business model for Chris Cakes, a Kansas City-based operation built on mobile grills, flung pancakes, and jocular spatula-wielders.
Locally, Paul Werkowitch (right) is our Chris Cakes man. He and his staff are the only ones entitled to throw pancakes at diners within 100 miles of St. Louis, according to the company’s franchise policy. He flings pancakes every day, at fundraisers for schools, churches, and businesses. His Fenton-based operation includes five full-time employees, a number of part-timers, nine mobile grills, and multiple trucks to transport them.
If necessary, Chris Cakes will do “emergency catering.” Don’t laugh – it happens. In the event of a flood, tornado, etc., people will go hungry. Werkowitch, if called upon, will push the grills into the trucks and find you like Superman finds Lois Lane in an earthquake. (Such a breakfast might not be festive, however. It might be solemn. Pancakes might not be flung. They might be slid soberly, professionally from spatula to plate. But then again, a child of flood might need a pick-me-up. A pancake that rises 12 feet in the air and lands either in a plate or on the floor might cheer up that bereft babe.)
In Missouri, we “get” thrown food. Many of us have made the drive to Sikeston, Missouri, for the honor of having rolls whipped through the dining room of Lambert’s (below) at our family and ourselves. (They call them “throwed rolls.” The purposeful grammatical error is a back-country affectation, we are asked to believe, not unlike the gigantic portions at Lambert’s that a farm worker might need for the energy to to bale hay and shoe horses all the livelong day. We are not farm workers. We are large-assed city types.)
At Lambert’s, when a diner fails to catch a dinner roll, it rolls along the floor, is swept up by a roll-jockey, and discarded. Similarly, when one misses one’s pancake, the Chris Cakes representative is not dismayed. It is fate. Some pancakes are too good to live. Besides, estimated Werkowitch, “only three to five percent get dropped.”
“And I’m not concerned about dropped pancakes,” he added. “It’s part of the show, and it adds a lot of flair to what we do.”
In other words, that’s show business.
“If it hits the ground you blame the customer,” he deadpanned.
The joking is as much a part of the experience as the pancake that arcs up in its absurd parabola into the sky. Werkowitch is a card – all the Chris Cakes flapjack flippers are. They joke early in the morning, when you are not convinced you should be awake yet, exactly. They make bad puns. They are ready with a line when you catch the pancake in your plate, and a line when you do not.
“I tell people the pancakes that drop on the floor are for my mother-in-law,” said Werkowitch.
That one usually gets a laugh. It is as if Soupy Sales is serving an aerial breakfast, cracking jokes between flicks of the spatula.
The customers are responsible for the humor, too.
“I’ve had people fall down diving for a pancake,” said Werkowitch. “People will push other people out of the way. Sometimes I flip it into the air and everybody steps back and they all watch it fall and hit the ground and then they silently blame each other.” (In economic circles, this is known as “the tragedy of the commons.”)
Has Werkowitch ever watched a pancake come down and land on the head of an expectant customer with a doughy slap?
“When a pancake lands on someone’s head,” he said, “it's fifty percent scary and fifty percent funny – it totally depends on the customer’s reaction.”
Of course, children love the Chris Cakes experience. They love it more when Werkowitch cranks out pancakes in bright colors, and funky shapes.
“We can make any color pancake you want,” he said. “This week we’re doing pink pancakes for cancer awareness. We can do red, white, and blue on a single pancake, which we do on Veterans’ Day. We do green for St. Patrick’s Day.”
The colors are festive, but the oddly shaped flapjacks (left) are the real trick.
“We can do triangles, squares, and people’s initials,” said Werkowitch. “I do pigs and teddy bears, too, using a spatula, knife, and spoon. One of our guys in Kansas City can do the entire Simpsons family.”
A triangular pancake – think about that. It’s just too odd. It is what we will consume after the final revolution, when humanity has outlawed circles – and love. It is the breakfast of a grim, sci-fi future. Does it come in black, or chrome?
No matter. What matters is that a brave new mega-Dierbergs, profiled here, has opened in Des Peres. On the upper level of this super-supermarket, each Saturday, Werkowitch flips out. He will lob all the pancakes at you that you can handle, for five bucks a head ($3.95 for kids age 3 and older).
Your eyes will grow big. You will think you can eat ten of them. You cannot.
But you will try. You will avail yourself of the warm maple-syrup fountain (below left), originally sold as a chocolate fountain. You will dip into the pancake-condiment buffet, featuring chocolate chips; blueberry, strawberry, and cinnamon-apple toppings; and whipped cream.
You will wash it down with yet more quirkiness: the $5 includes a bottomless cup of actual orange Tang instant-breakfast drink (below right).
“’I haven’t had this since I was a kid’ is the number one reaction I get on the Tang,” said Werkowitch. “Then they’ll turn to the next person in line and say, ‘You know the astronauts used to drink this…’”
After the sticky breakfast, you should wash up. You can do that there, too, in a nearby sink on the Dierbergs mezzanine.
It is the climactic ablution of the ritual. As you leave, you are so very full of spongy pancake. You spy another man, just arriving. He holds out his plate. Werkowitch digs his spatula beneath a pancake and flips it, high, high, high into the air. It hesitates at the top of its arc for the briefest of instants, traveling neither up nor down. Then, it begins its descent to oblivion.
Will the man catch it in his plate? You can, you will, you must, stop and watch.
8 -11 a.m., each Saturday
Dierbergs – Des Peres - Mezzanine Level
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