Tim Ester, Stoby’s general manager of 26 years, recalls his first time in the restaurant like it was yesterday.
“I can remember just walking in the door — this place had a buzz about it,” he said. “I remember sitting in a booth and the restaurant was pretty full and everybody looked like they were having fun. It felt like a community atmosphere — a family atmosphere.”
Ester came to Stoby’s that day for a job interview. He originally turned down the position over the phone, but was talked in to visiting the restaurant with the offer of a free breakfast.
“After I ate the biscuits and the strawberry jelly, I was convinced if for nothing else, the food, so I gave it a shot,” he said.
Twenty-six years later, Ester has decided the time is right for him to leave Stoby’s.
“I knew it was time for me to leave when I started hiring employees who worked for me’s kids,” Ester said.
He doesn’t want to overstay his welcome, he said, and he wants to go out when Stoby’s is in its prime.
“If you’re going to go out, you want to go out on top, and I want to know I’ve done everything I can possibly do as far as putting the work in,” he said.
Ester first started working at Stoby’s as a breakfast cook in 1988 and went to being an assistant manager within three months.
Rheumatoid Arthritis limited Ester’s abilities to work at the restaurant, so Stoby’s Owner David Stobaugh brought Ester on as a bookkeeper for the Cheese Dip business and the three restaurants the Stobaughs owned at the time.
Stobaugh said Ester has really been an inspiration both personally and professionally.
“He’s had physical problems over the years, and I’ve never heard the man complain,” he said. “He maintains a Godly attitude 24/7.”
When the previous general manager left for another job in 1995, Stobaugh offered Ester the position.
“I think because there were a lot of different things he couldn’t do himself, made him a better manager,” Stobaugh said. “He learned how to get things done through other people.”
Debbie Patrom has been serving Stoby’s Original Cheese Dip for 18 years. She hasn’t known any other general manager, but Tim Ester.
“He couldn’t fire me because I wouldn’t leave,” Patrom said.
Patrom calls Ester family. “We’ll always be family,” she said, “even if he’s not here.”
When it comes to football, Ester is a Dallas fan, and Patrom a Kansas City fan. During football season, the two razz each other from game to game.
“Just like a brother and sister we fight, but we’re always there for each other,” Patrom said. “He’s a good, Christian man who’d help you out in any shape or form.”
Some say a restaurant eventually takes on the personality of its manager, Stobaugh said, so a lot of what people experience at Stoby’s is a product of how Ester lives his life.
“One thing Stoby’s has done for me has certainly helped provide for my family, but most of all it has taught me how to give back, and put me in a position to help give back, and I’m very passionate about that,” Ester said.
In addition to serving on a number of boards including United Way and Boys and Girls Club, Ester helped establish the Pine Street Community Backpack Program with his wife Gena.
The program has grown to supply more than 1,000 students with backpacks filled with supplies specific to each child’s school supply list. The program is a community wide effort funded by grants, donations and fundraisers.
Ester also started the Stoby’s pancake fundraiser breakfasts, which quickly grew from about five to 30 each year.
“I still pinch myself sometimes because this was set up perfectly for me,” Ester said. “God made it possible for me to give back.”
Ester’s wife Gena has been behind him 110 percent, he says, packing backpacks and showing him nothing but support through their 26 years of marriage and 26 years at Stoby’s.
Ester and Gena have two children, Kiera, 24, who recently graduated from the University of Central Arkansas, and Jordan, 15, who plays football for Conway High School. Both children have found themselves in the dining room and kitchen of Stoby’s helping out over the years.
As the years went by, Conway developed into one of the fastest growing cities in America and Stoby’s established a reputation of its own as a homegrown, tradition that can only be found on Donaghey Avenue.
When Ester first started working at the mom and pop, he said he thinks the city’s population was about 20,000 to 25,000.
Even in the last 10 years with big franchises like Chili and TGI Friday’s, Ester said, Stoby’s has held its own, but he couldn’t have done it without the help of his employees.
Ester said he’ll miss his customers first and foremost, but it’s his employees he’s going to miss the most.
“I have the utmost respect from the dishwasher to the highest salary,” he said. “We’re family. I spend more time with them — sometimes eight to 10 hours day — than my own family.”
Each year, Stoby’s processes about 100 W-2s with about 50 people on staff at any given time, Stobaugh said.
“What that means is there are about 1,700 people who have worked under [Ester] as a manager, and I think you could talk to almost everyone of them about how much respect they have for him and how much they enjoyed working here,” he said.
Betty Sims started working at Stoby’s in 1981; a year after the restaurant was founded in 1980. She has since left to work elsewhere three times, but something about Stoby’s keeps her coming back.
Sims said Ester is always understanding and honest, and he will go to bat for his employees.
“He’s just a fair and good boss with a great personality, and he always has an ear to hear,” Sims said.
Ester gave Aaron Worley the opportunity to be assistant manager about eight years ago, after Worley had been a dedicated employee for four.
Worley says Ester has been like a father figure, and taught him everything he knows about the restaurant business.
“He has been an inspiration as far as work, and his philosophy on work and how to treat people, and not only about work, but life,” he said.
Worley said he knows he’ll never be able to fill Ester’s shoes because he’s so good at what he does, but he feels like Ester has left him with the tools and knowledge he needs to pick up where Ester will leave off.
“When you run a business for 26 years, it’s like losing any one of these guys who’ve been here so long,” Worley said. “We’re one big family and we fight like family, makeup like family, so essentially we’re losing one of our family members.”
Along with the reoccurring theme of family, his employees also mention how much they’ll miss his sayings.
They say, you know when Tim Ester is coming because he’s either singing or bellowing one of his many notorious sayings like “I’m all over this place” or “sometimes you’re the bug and sometimes you’re the windshield.”
Sims said she and the rest of the staff will miss Ester dearly, but she doesn’t think he’ll stay away for too long.
“Stoby’s has been too much a part of his life,” Sims said. “He’s just like part of the old furniture around here.”
At 48 years old, Ester still has some years left, and although he’s not a fisherman, he says, he’d still like to go watch his son play football and take some extra time to maintain his rental properties.
Ester’s ideal retirement is to combine his love for food and cooking with his passion for giving back, he said.
“I certainly don’t want anybody calling me first thing Monday morning now that I’m retired to do this, but my ideal is to drive my trailer around and cook hotdogs for people,” he said. “I don’t want to charge for them because it’s more like work when you charge for it.”
Ester and Stobaugh have always had a personal goal of when they’re 80 years old; they want to be under the shade of a big oak tree at Renewal Ranch grilling for the guys there.
“He’s always got to be doing something, and nine times out of ten it’s something for somebody else with nothing in return,” Worley said.
Stobaugh said both he and Worley will run the restaurant “for a time” after Ester retires. Although if Stobaugh has his way, Ester’s days with Stoby’s may not be through yet.
“His ability to reach out and connect with the public is going to be irreplaceable,” Stobaugh said. “What I need to do is make him vice president of public relations.”