Text by DANIELLE DAVIES
Photographs by MICHELLE GIORLA and BERNIE HAAS
Vintage photos courtesy of THE O’HARA FAMILY
There are pancake houses, and then there’s Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. If you’re visiting Cape May County, or are lucky enough to live here year-round, then you’re no stranger to the renown that is associated with Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. A veritable institution, Uncle Bill’s is pretty much synonymous with a weekend breakfast—heaps of pancakes, mounds of butter, and puddles of sweet and delicious syrup included—especially at the shore in the summertime.
And while their pancakes are legendary, it’s more than a breakfast full of fluffy sweetness that gets people in the door at Uncle Bill’s, because let’s face it—you can get pancakes everywhere from McDonald’s to your local diner. There’s just something special about Uncle Bill’s. And sure, it could be the menu, which does in fact include a seemingly endless variety of really excellent pancakes and breakfast options. It could simply be the vibe of Uncle Bill’s, the thrill of hanging out over steaming sips of coffee at a local joint. It could even be the locations—there are seven restaurants throughout the county, from Cape May to Ocean City. And while the allure of Uncle Bill’s likely involves a little bit of each aforementioned reason, we think the phenomenal success of Uncle Bill’s has something to do with family—not only yours, but theirs.
Uncle Bill’s Pancake House is, for reasons no one can quite put their finger on, the place you go to eat breakfast with family. Often, lots of family. In fact, it’s not unusual to see tables of 10, 20, even 30 members of an extended family, sitting elbow to jowl, merrily digging into pancakes.
“There are traditions of families coming through year after year after year,” says Tommy O’Hara, who owns the Cape May and Wildwood Uncle Bill’s locations. “The Wildwood location more than any other one has a lot of big groups. They’ll walk up and not even blink an eye and say, ‘Oh, we have 30’. We’ll say, ‘30? Alright, give us a minute, we have to find a table here’. There aren’t too many restaurants that can take tables of 30, but we have a lot of large tables.”
With the kids drawn to things like the chocolate chip or M&M pancakes, and the adults tending to order things like the immensely popular Banana Pecan Pancakes or Waffles, it’s still an inordinate number of families patronizing one group of restaurants. Perhaps it’s an innate pull to the family that owns Uncle Bill’s.
Because while entire generations of families tend to gather there throughout the county, there’s one brood that is the real heart and soul of the restaurants—the O’Hara family, who are all entwined with, and continue to expand on, the history of Uncle Bill’s. And that includes no less than four Bills. The original was Bill Schaeffer, who opened the first restaurant in Beach Haven and another in Stone Harbor. Schaeffer sold both locations; the Beach Haven location became Uncle Will’s (which is still operating and is completely separate from Uncle Bill’s), while the Stone Harbor location was purchased by our second Bill—Bill Donahue, along with his wife Eleanor, who used to work for Schaeffer, in 1962.
The third Bill enters the story when Bill and Eleanor Donahue’s daughter, Debbie Donahue, married Billy O’Hara, Jr. The two took over the Stone Harbor location for Debbie’s parents and expanded the operation to a second location in Avalon.
Billy O’Hara, Jr. was the eldest of five siblings from the O’Hara family of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where their father—our fourth Bill—Bill O’Hara, Sr., owned and operated a waste management business. While the O’Hara siblings worked at the family business in the winter, summertime in Stone Harbor meant working at Uncle Bill’s.
When Bill O’Hara, Sr. happened upon the unique round building outside of Congress Hall in Cape May—which had most recently been a Pierre’s Pancake House—he thought it would be the perfect place for another Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. And so, in 1989, he sold the family Pennsylvania business and moved fully into the restaurant business, with both the Cape May location and a new location in Strathmere, making it a total of four Uncle Bill’s owned by the O’Hara clan.
From there, other O’Hara siblings have become owners and operators of additional Uncle Bill’s Pancake Houses. Beth O’Hara (Boyle) owns the North Cape May location. Tommy O’Hara now owns the Cape May location as well as the Wildwood store, and Patrick O’Hara owns both Ocean City locations, having recently sold the building that housed the Strathmere restaurant. Patrick also owned an Uncle Bill’s in Margate but closed it due to a lack of parking.
“I started working in the Stone Harbor location when I was 13. So that’s 45 years ago, a long time,” says Tommy. “I took ownership of Cape May in 1990, right after we sold the trash company. I opened the Wildwood location in 1991 or 1992.”
Each Uncle Bill’s restaurant uses a unique business model. Even with seven locations, they are decidedly not a franchise, because no one can own an Uncle Bill’s that isn’t a family member.
“It’s just a family business,” says Tommy O’Hara. “We have the name registered and all that. Nobody else can use the name, only family.”
Likewise, there is not a main Uncle Bill’s, with all the siblings managing different locations. Instead, this family business is really multiple family businesses—each owner independently owns and operates their own stores, setting their own prices, choosing their own décor, even serving different meals, and using different social media addresses.
“They’re all different based on the area they’re in. Some of them are in shore towns and some are off the islands, like the one in North Cape May. Prices are different in all of them,” says Tommy. “I did dinners in Cape May for 15 years. My sister did them in North Cape May. I think my brother was doing a turkey night in Ocean City. Everything is similar but every restaurant is different. We don’t have a set footprint, like ‘this is how we do it’. Some of the buildings that we buy, it is what it is, so you have to adapt to whatever is there. We have different color schemes, but pretty much they are all the same kitchen line setup.”
And while customers tend to think of Uncle Bill’s as a breakfast place, some offer lunch, where again, options are different based on location.
“Some of them don’t really do well with lunches. Like my Wildwood store, I have a very, very, very small lunch menu,” says Tommy. “But in Cape May, I have a very extensive lunch menu with salads, clubs, hot turkeys, and all kinds of stuff. You just have to go with the market. I tried to do it in Wildwood, but nobody was buying it, so I just kept it simple with cheesesteaks, cheeseburgers, stuff like that.”
It’s a unique set up, but one that works well for the O’Hara’s.
“After we sold the trash company in 1989 and we expanded the restaurant, we all just bought each other out so we don’t have to work together. That sometimes creates a lot of family stress,” says Tommy. “This way, we all own our own stuff. There are ties together, but also no ties together. When we get together on the holidays, we still all love each other.”
And despite having separate restaurants, the O’Hara family is still…well, family.
“Everybody has been involved at one point. I’ve worked with my brother Bill, I’ve worked with Pat, I’ve worked with Michael (who isn’t currently involved), and with Beth. I’ve worked with all my family. Everybody helps each other out,” says Tommy. “Sometimes family is what keeps it all together when you don’t have any help.”
And the O’Hara’s themselves have things in common besides their ownerships of separate Uncle Bill’s. While they each work independently of the others, they are the same in their work ethic and their commitment to Uncle Bill’s, with children and even grandchildren involved in the family business.
“You have to do whatever you have to do in the restaurant business. You can’t single out any one position. You have to know everything. You can’t tell an employee what to do if you don’t know how to do it yourself,” says Tommy. “So, I’ll wash dishes, I’ll bus tables, I’ll wait tables, I’ll cook. And my brothers and sister are all the same. But my sister doesn’t cook—her two boys are in the kitchen. My brother Patrick, his grandchildren work in the ones in Ocean City, so that’s a whole other generation. They go in there and bus tables and host.”
There are some things that are consistent among all the Uncle Bill’s locations, however—one of which is the pancake recipe. “We all use the original pancake recipe, and then we have other stuff like crepes and waffles and buckwheat pancakes,” says Tommy.
And of course, those original pancakes are the base of many other specialty pancakes including blueberry, pecan, corn, peach, apple, strawberry, blueberry—even raisin pancakes. The variety of flapjacks varies from place to place, but that original recipe stays the same. “It’s like having vanilla ice cream and then adding other stuff to it,” says Tommy.
While there is variety, the O’Haras try to keep most of their breakfast food consistent among the locations, and they buy in bulk as a group in order to get better prices. It’s a process they have nailed down over the years.
“We have meetings, usually in the beginning of the year, right before we start. After a food show, we’ll talk about what we’ve seen and anything new out there, but that’s about it, really,” says Tommy.
The Future of Uncle Bill’s
“I cook in the kitchen. I’ve been cooking in the kitchen for my whole life,” says Tommy. “I’m just trying to get out of the kitchen. But with COVID hitting, and the help not being there, the last two years in the restaurant business haven’t been a whole lot of fun.”
Fortunately, during COVID, Uncle Bill’s was established enough to hold on and get through it. Even better is the fact that this summer is looking up, and with it, a return to the huge quantity of loyal customers Uncle Bill’s has always enjoyed, a number Tommy admits he couldn’t even begin to guess.
“Oh my God, I can’t even imagine. I couldn’t count them all,” he says. “A lot. Thousands. And probably millions and millions of pancakes.”
As for the future, with seven restaurants owned by four siblings, ‘what happens next’ is a legitimate concern, for customers as well as for the O’Haras.
“Kind of where we are right now is the transition from my siblings to their kids,” says Tommy. “I have four children of my own. My daughter Jill and son-in-law Ethan will be taking over Cape May and Wildwood eventually.”
Will there be more Uncle Bill’s Pancake Houses opening? That’s anyone’s guess. While the family maintains their own boundaries as to where they can put new restaurants, there’s always the possibility of more. In fact, Tommy purchased another building in North Wildwood prior to COVID that he tentatively planned to open as an Uncle Bill’s before ultimately deciding to rent it out to Jersey Joe’s Waffle House.
For now, Tommy O’Hara can be found flipping pancakes on the grill of the Uncle Bill’s in Cape May all summer long, where just like he does at the beginning of every season, he’ll kick things off with a plate of pancakes.
“The first day of every year, I have a stack of pancakes, just to make sure they’re the same as they always are,” he says.
“Cape May is opening March 18, so I already know I’ll be having pancakes that morning.” ■
Curious about that round building?
The Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Cape May is housed in an unusual round building that was originally the Congress Hall Bar & Lounge. As Tommy tells it, the Reverend Carl McIntire, who bought Congress Hall in 1967, tried to get rid of the liquor license that was associated with the building, and opted instead to sell the building to Howard Johnson’s to operate as a restaurant.
When Howard Johnson’s went out of business, the building was sold to Pierre’s, a pancake house that had an additional location in Wildwood. Upon Pierre’s closure, the O’Hara’s purchased the building and opened Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in 1980.