It was the talk all over town a few weeks ago — Rothschild’s Family Restaurant in Washington was giving away free food on Wednesday, July 24.

There was no charge for anything on the menu that day — absolutely everything was free.

If you missed it or didn’t hear about it, you may have been the only one. Once word of the promotion spread, lines formed out the door and stayed that way.

Owners Jason and Julie (Rothschild) Witte, who offered the promotion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her family owning the business, said they purposely didn’t advertise the sale (or even tell the staff ahead of time) because they wanted their regular customers “to have the first shot at it.”

Special signs set up around the restaurant let customers know that all of the food would be on the house. Their reaction was as you might expect.

“You’d see them take a picture of (the sign) and send it to somebody,” said Julie Witte. “The cooks were watching and they thought that was funny.

“You’d see people sit down, notice it and then they’d start texting right away or they’d call people.”

“We have probably 1,000 followers on Facebook, and most of them are our customers, people we would recognize,” said Jason Witte. “So we put it on Facebook right when we started doing it. Then we started seeing all of them come in.”

By 7 p.m. that evening, the Wittes said some 8,000 people had seen their promotion on Facebook.

By the day’s end, Rothschild’s had served 1,200 people that day, which was right around 340 tickets and 400 tables.

The idea for the promotion is something Jason Witte had been thinking on for about five years, since the restaurant celebrated its 45th anniverasry. He wanted to do something really big to mark the family’s 50th anniversary, and after researching the idea online, he couldn’t find any record of another restaurant offering free food for an entire day.

“So I decided, well our dining room is only so big and our parking lot is only so big, so how bad could it get?

“I came in here and we had a line 30-people deep but the kitchen only had three tickets. They were keeping right up.”

While the promotion sounds extreme, said Jason Witte, it was the best way to show appreciation to all of Rothschild’s longtime and regular customers — some of whom have been coming in all 50 years and others who are second- and third-generation customers.

They came in as kids or grandkids, and now they’re bringing in their own families.

The restaurant prepared for the daylong onslaught by planning ahead for any possible scenario.

“We had to know how to shut the line down, what to do if stuff started to get out of control, we knew we had employees cars to park in the lot if we had to slow the line down. We had all kinds of ideas in place.

“We had a sign made to shut the line off because we didn’t want to be here until midnight, and then we gave out tickets to people from that point on.”

At 7 p.m. is when they cut the line off. Every other day Rothschild’s closes at 8 p.m.

“There were cars double parked all down the street . . . but people were good about it,” said Jason Witte.

“It was a madhouse, but it went good. Smooth.”

Started as A&W Root Beer Stand

Charles Rothschild bought the business in 1963 when it was an A&W root beer stand. Back then the restaurant was little more than a shack with windows where customers walked up to place orders, said Marge Rothschild, who met and married Charles after she began working at the restaurant in 1972.

In the beginning, the business was seasonal — open spring to fall.

But when Rothschild took over, he decided he wanted to make it year-round, said Marge Rothschild. So he put in a furnace and air conditioning, added seating around what used to be windows, put in barstools. There also were 28 service phones outside for drive-up orders, she said.

Charles Rothschild added on to the menu a little bit, but it mainly stayed the same — hamburgers, hot dogs and fries.

There were only a handful of restaurants in the Washington area back then, Marge Rothschild recalled.

She also noted that the A&W restaurant in those days was actually located on the other side of the parking lot of where the restaurant is today. The current building went up in 1978, said Julie Witte.

Charles Rothschild, who didn’t have a background in the food industry, ran the restaurant as A&W until 1982, when he dropped the franchise and changed the name to Rothschild’s.

He had become “dissatisfied” with the franchise business and all of the fees owners were required to pay, Marge Rothschild recalled. So he decided to go independent.

“We stuck with a simple menu at first, like we had — a little bit more than hamburgers and hot dogs — but then we just kept adding on,” she said.

Originally, the restaurant opened at 11 a.m. for lunch and, when it was an A&W, stayed open until midnight. Gradually, Rothschild began cutting into that late-night hour, closing the store earlier and earlier.

They transitioned the menu to one of down-home country comfort food featuring family recipes that had been handed down in the Rothschild family.

“We can look back in the books and see who came up with them,” said Jason Witte. “Carol (Rothschild), Marge and Charlie, Julie and I . . .

“It’s all our recipes. The kind of stuff you would make at home. The stuff you’d expect your grandma to make.”

“We still have Dad’s little black recipe book with all of his hand-written recipes in there,” added Julie Witte. “It’s kind of neat.”

Fried chicken and catfish are two dishes Rothschild’s is known for, but really all of the dishes are top-sellers, said Jason Witte.

“If I’m doing paperwork, and I look at the menu, everything we have sells,” he said. “There is nothing that is a low-seller here, which is kind of neat.

“We sell more chicken than the other things, but, shoot, the roast beef and everything, we sell almost an even number of.”

‘Best Breakfast,’ Top Wait Staff

In 1987, Charles Rothschild decided to open the restaurant for breakfast, and that quickly became its specialty. (Rothschild’s has won Best Breakfast in The Missourian’s Readers’ Choice Awards for the last 10 years.)

In fact, breakfast became so popular that Rothschild’s began serving it all day.

Another thing the restaurant is praised for is its waitresses. They are so friendly and give good service, said Marge Rothschild.

Today, Rothschild’s still has one employee who worked there since it was A&W, in the old building even — Mardell “Marty” Ferkel, Washington.

She handles all of the restaurant’s prep work.

Of the 32 people who Rothschild’s employs, two have been with the restaurant over 30 years, three over 10 years and seven over five years.

That’s an anomoly in the restaurant business, where three years is often a record, admits Jason Witte.

The restaurant seats around 100 people, including the patio tables along Fifth Street.

The salad bar addition in 1981 has been another good thing for business.

“That’s something a lot of places have gotten rid of,” said Marge Rothschild. “But people like making their own thing.”

She thinks part of the salad bar’s popularity has to do with its variety.

“We keep a lot of fresh fruit on it — strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe — especially in the summer when we can get it, because for most people, they’re not going to buy that at home because it goes to waste so fast if you don’t eat it.”

For Some, Two and Three Meals a Day

Today it’s pretty common for Rothschild’s regular customers to eat at the restaurant two, even three meals in a single day.

“I was doing the credit cards one day . . . and we had nine customers who ate here twice in the same day,” Jason Witte said.

“We try to keep our prices so low that it’s about the same as eating at home, so I think that kind of helps. Especially it’s not worth cooking a meal for just one or two people sometimes.”

That’s a popular option for older customers who are living alone, noted Marge Rothschild.

“Why cook for one? This way they get a variety. The salad bar is a big thing for them, because they can make what they want.”

“They have their friends here,” added Jason Witte. “That camaraderie.”

There’s one group of widows who have been doing this regularly for so long that the Rothschild’s staff refer to them simply as “the ladies.”

“They came in with their husbands then . . . but now they come in a big group to sit together at dinner and eat,” said Julie Witte.

The Wittes bought the business in 2001 when Charles and Marge Rothschild were ready to retire. Julie, the youngest of Charles’ children, was working there at the time as manager.

Before working at the restaurant, Jason Witte worked in the auto body industry at Fifth and Oak and also raced monster trucks professionally.

He’s taken to working in the restaurant industry naturally.

Most of the changes they have made to the restaurant have been behind the scenes, updates to the kitchen equipment to handle the increasing volume, for example.

They added curbside service about three years ago.

“That draws a lot of customers,” Jason Witte remarked, as his daughters, 8-year-old Charley and 7-year-old Aubrey sat at the counter enjoying a snack.

Looking ahead to the future of the family restaurant, the Wittes said they couldn’t know if their children would be interested in one day taking over, but they sure do love helping run the business right now.

“They help the waitresses,” said Julie Witte. “They roll silverware, fill sugars, clean some dishes even.

“The customers have grown to know them because they wear their Rothschild’s shirts.”

Rothschild’s Family Restaurant is located on Fifth Street near the corner of Highway 47. Hours are 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week.