Say diner and most people think of burgers, fries, and shakes, but the Trusty Diner in Water Valley is not where you go if that’s what you’re hungry for.
Owner Lawton Gafford created this restaurant out of a desire to cook fresh food, everything from squash gratin to veggie pasta, all made from local ingredients.
His mission: keeping a community healthy by offering what he would call real food in a world of chain restaurants and soups that come in plastic bags.
Trusty Diner is more though.
It’s an integral part of the town’s Main Street revitalization, and as such, reflects Water Valley’s efforts to strengthen its independent businesses so that their voices can be heard. Trusty Diner is a restaurant with a voice, a business with a community context.
The restaurant is changing how people look at food in Water Valley, thus expanding public discourse. Besides, organic food taste better, said Gafford.
The restaurant attracts everyone from foodies to the after-church crowd, drawn by freshly-prepared tasty dishes, which he hopes, also bridge political and cultural divides.
Trusty Diner is the last building in a row of Main Street businesses reaching south, its name spelled out in gold on the windows, with big letters on the rooftop reading, Diner.
In front of the counter are a row of seats with red upholstery and chrome bases, the kind you’d see in any diner. But one look at the menu tells you you’re in for different fare.
“We cook everything from scratch and we don’t use all the tricks, the butter, the fat, the sugar, the salt.” Gafford explained. “We just don’t do it and people love it.”
Gafford was raised in Florida and would visit Water Valley as a child to see his grandparents. His grandmother’s cooking – a far cry from the microwave menu he was used to in Orlando’s restaurants – he never forgot.
Black-and-white family photos line the walls, with red and yellow frames. Sitting at the counter you see the triple door glass fridge stocked with vegetables, kombucha, and hummus.
The menu includes sandwiches, salads, wraps, plates, all borne out of the philosophy that organic and fresh food not only is better for you, but tastes better.
“Most of what I get is from local farms, and the only thing I add in is what you can’t get from a farm,” said Gafford.
America’s food system is broken, he contended. When the plant-based food craze became popular, Gafford looked into a plant-based food company. What he found was that these companies were selling plant-based food that needed to be thrown in a fryer to cook. This defeated the whole purpose of having plant-based food, he thought.
Gafford attended Ole Miss and graduated in 1995, majoring in English and minoring in anthropology. He first wanted to be a veterinarian. “I was a terrible student.” Gafford recalls.
While attending Ole Miss, Gafford, now 50, lived with his grandmother, Emma Kate Trusty, or as her family called her, Mama Kate, in a white vinyl-sided house Main Street with a stone chimney up the front.
When he later moved out and she needed to be moved into a nursing home, she begged him to take her house and car and stay in Water Valley. Gafford turned down the offer, because he felt lWater Valley offered few opportunities.
Fifteen years later, Gafford and his girlfriend, Erika Walden, were looking for a place to settle. Maybe North or South Carolina. On their way to Arkansas to visit Walden’s sister they drove through Water Valley and decided to move here.
He needed a job though. “I thought I could get up every day and cook, I would like that,” Gafford recalled. When he realized that school lunches were not his favorite, he decided to make his own food, learning from having worked in restaurants along the way.
In Water Valley, Gafford worked at the local pizza place, and then the Crawdad Hole and finally at the town’s country club.
“I was really hoping someone else would take the risk of owning and starting a new business so I could just help with the process,” Gafford said of Trusty’s beginnings.
When nobody stepped up, he took it upon himself. After all, he had learned many lessons about what not to do. And so, in that way, the Trusty Diner was born.
The town of Water Valley was founded in 1889. Gafford’s’ great grandfather, William Thaddeus Trusty, was sheriff from 1915 to 1924, when it was a railroad town. His great grandfather also owned a hotel and a furniture store.
When Gafford was naming the diner, he thought to keep the family name. “We put the trusty name on there so people wouldn’t think we were carpetbaggers.” Gafford said.
Though the restaurant draws its share of younger patrons, many with ties to the university, locals remained skeptical, at least at first, griping about the prices or assuming that Gafford was a liberal.
Gafford said the diner is not for everyone and doesn’t need to be.
“We don’t need everyone to eat here. A certain type of people eats here, and we like that. We don’t have to appeal to everyone,” he explained.
The type of person who cares about what goes into their body, that’s his market. Too, he’s won over many local residents who at first were skeptical.
While most restaurants would look for the best deal on items, Gafford looks for the best quality ingredients. “I could look to order a cheaper hamburger bun, I could look to order a cheaper everything, but it wouldn’t be as good,” he said.
When the railroad moved from Water Valley to Kentucky in 1982, the town went from a population of 8,000 to 3,000. Shops and hotels closed down and Water Valley became a small town with few visitors.
Now, the town has undergone a renaissance in the last decade or more, spurred on the efforts of a younger group of residents, many associated with the university.
The diner tries to stay neutral on politics, especially town politics, and it embraces diversity. A sign out front reads, “We accept all colors, races, genders.”
The George Floyd video made him reassess his family roots here. Gafford’s great grandfather, having been sheriff, for example, made him question. Was he involved in the killings of African Americans in the early 1900s? Was he a racist? These questions haunted Gafford and convinced him to take pictures of his great grandfather off of the wall.
Trusty Diner has become an integral part of Water Valley, in part, through Gafford’s tireless dedication. It’s also a hub of critical thinking, of ideas, a beacon.
“We cater people’s weddings, we celebrate the birth of their children, we take food to funerals, we take food to the fire department and police department,” he said. “We take fresh food from scratch and just let the ingredients shine.”
Naomi Ryder is a sophomore from San Diego, California. Naomi is studying Integrated Marketing Communications. In her free time, she enjoys staying active and strives to eat healthy.