'This is a family': Restaurant known for serving military changes owners, vows to continue honoring veterans

TILLICUM, Wash. – If you or a family member have ever been to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, you probably have eaten at a Pierce County restaurant renowned for its support for the troops.

Galloping Gerties has been open for business in Tillicum for more than half a century, catering to travelers, military members and their families for generations.

Even though the owners of the restaurant recently retired, the new lifeblood believes every day is Veteran’s Day at Gerties.

The portions are huge and the staff are friendly, but founder Gertie Rice didn’t start at this location. The original spot, according to Rice’s family, was once located on Commercial Street back in 1952. Ever since, the Gerties family has been serving hot meals to military members from across the country.

“It’s a piece of military history of feeding the troops,” said Gertie’s daughter, Susan Rothwell. “You don’t find restaurants that have been around 66 years.”

But Gerties is known for more than a meal, it’s also known for serving military service members. In 1959 the restaurant moved to its current location across Interstate 5 from JBLM, and the soldiers kept coming.

“We welcome the troops that come in as part of our family,” said Rothwell. “They’re not just customers.”

When a business has been around as long as Gerties, serving the guests they do, learning the sacrifice of war is inevitable.

“It’s not a one-day appreciation, and maybe that’s the secret to Gerties,” said Rothwell. “Our appreciation for the troops is every day of the year, not just Veteran’s Day.”

On the walls hang news clippings and photos of soldiers, sometimes also customers, who paid the ultimate price.

Rothwell has also kept binders packed with articles and letters to Rothwell and her staff from family members whose loved ones never came home.

“This is not a business,” insisted Rothwell.  “This is a family; we just happen to serve food.”

Gertie’s daughter Susan Rothwell has been running the place with her husband since 1999 – but they wanted a break.

The couple sold the restaurant to Maggie Stoddard back in August 2018 with the promise she would keep soldiers at the heart of Gertie's service.

“I just couldn’t sleep at night thinking of it being turned into rubble,” said Rothwell.

“Everybody knows Gerties,” said Stoddard. “My mom was talking to my older brother, he’s eaten here. My son’s down in Nevada and he talks to his buddies in the military. They all have been here, they all know Gerties.”

Gerties is a place where a soldier – if only for a moment – can forget about war and lost friends and sit down for a home cooked meal – and a thank you from a family business whose main promise is to honor those who serve the rest of us.

“That’s why it’s been here since 1952 and will be here until the end of time as long as I have a say in it,” said Stoddard.

“So, it’s giving,” said Rothwell. “We don’t give a lot anymore we take don’t we. We give and that’s what makes us special and maybe that’s what makes us special, we give.”

Rothwell says her mother’s restaurant is actually not named for the infamous bridge that collapsed in the Tacoma Narrows. Instead, founder Gertie Rice was a fan of horse racing and in fact once had horses grazing on the location where the restaurant stands today.