Cowan’s Restaurant History
In some form, the building that houses Cowan’s Restaurant has been a part of the Downtown Washington landscape almost since the city’s inception.
While owner Tom Gildehaus is proud of that fact, he’s more proud of the family aspect of the restaurant. In addition to being a place where family works, Gildehaus said it’s a place where people meet.
“It’s not only the family that works here, but I have always found it really cool that couples have met here. Then they get married. They have their wedding rehearsal here. When they have a baby, they have the shower here, birthdays and other celebrations are held here,” he said. “That’s what makes this a family restaurant.”
Cowan’s, at 114 Elm St., is owned by Gildehaus and his wife Rachel.
The building was built in the 1860s by the Kahmann family. Henry J. Dickbrader operated a hardware store in the location from 1869 to 1920. The Kahmann family continued erecting buildings southward along Elm Street and was eventually known as Kahmann’s Block.
Dickbrader was the mayor of Washington from 1893 to 1898.
According to the Washington Historical Society, the building also was used as Olympia’s Candy Kitchen, but little else is known about the kitchen. Gildehaus said tax records of the candy kitchen were discovered this year.
In 1930, Pete and Clara Mealer opened Mealer’s Cafe, which specialized in home-style cooking. The cafe was sold to Ida Mae Schultz in 1972. It was briefly called Elm Street Cafe. In 1973, John and Georgia Cowan purchased the restaurant and changed the name to Cowan’s Restaurant.
Just five years later, the restaurant was sold to Oma and Jerry Gildehaus, who kept the name. Oma had worked many years at the previous restaurants.
Along with their children, Oma and Jerry would expand and become known for their homemade pies. It was then that Cowan’s first became known as “The Place to Meet.”
The restaurant underwent major changes in 1979. Walls were removed between buildings and another room was added for seating. The kitchen was enlarged and public restrooms were added for the first time in 47 years.
In 1982, another building adjoining the restaurant was remodeled and access through the existing part was made available. This doubled the seating capacity.
In 1984, Granny’s Attic was opened, again an opening from another building was used for entry. The gift shop had a country flair with handmade crafts from the townspeople and souvenirs from Washington. The shop was named after Oma’s granny, Nellie Vondera.
Another smaller room was added in 1987 and major kitchen renovations were completed in 1988.
In late 2006, Jerry became ill and unable to work. Oma continued the restaurant, along with Tom and Rachel, until Oma passed away in 2009.
Tom and Rachel then purchased the restaurant.
Tom grew up in the restaurant business. He worked throughout his teen and adult years as a stock boy, dishwasher, cook and manager.
Tom said his parents instilled basic principles in him, such as buying top quality ingredients and cooking every order as it’s ordered to ensure the best, freshest food possible.
Rachel began working at Cowan’s as a server when she was 16. It was her first job.
The two were married in 2004 and in 2010 they remodeled the upstairs of the restaurant as their home. Rachel is now tasked with carrying on the tradition of “mile high pies.”
Made from scratch family recipes are still used today.
Gildehaus said his goal for Cowan’s is to remain a vital link in the Downtown Washington community.
Like Tom and Rachel Gildehaus, there are others willing to make Cowan’s the best family restaurant possible — one where generations of families continue to make memories.
“Cowan’s has always had long-term employees,” Gildehaus said.
Two of the longest serving employees are Debbie Hagedorn, who has been at Cowan’s for more than 40 years; and LaDonna Garbs, who has worked for the Gildehaus family for the past 10 years.
“It’s not uncommon for employees to stay here five, 10 or 15-plus years,” Gildehaus said, adding that he strives to make sure employees are well taken care of and can care for their families.
Gildehaus credited some of the restaurant’s success with dedicated employees who also want to see it do well.