True Grinnellian: In memory of Merle Reitzler

Merle Reitzler, 84, passed away on January 21, 2024. He is fondly remembered as Grinnells pie guy.
Merle Reitzler, 84, passed away on January 21, 2024. He is fondly remembered as Grinnell’s “pie guy.”
Contributed by Darla Harmon

Custard, rhubarb, two-crust strawberry and chocolate-peanut pies live on in the memory of Merle Reitzler’s friends and family. These flavors make up some of the estimated 50,000 pies that Reitzler made by hand during his 30-year career running restaurants in Poweshiek County. Reitzler, fondly known as Grinnell’s “Pie Guy” and the founder of A & M Cafe, is also remembered for his work ethic, hospitality and wisdom. 

Reitzler died at age 84 on Jan. 21, 2024 after a 6-month long battle with bone cancer. When Reitzler was diagnosed on July 24, 2023, A & M Cafe closed permanently three days later. 

Reitzler was born in Brooklyn, Iowa in 1939 and graduated from Brooklyn High School. He married Audrey Shimp in 1961. For the next 30 years, Reitzler worked as a farmer, primarily in Malcom, Iowa. During this time, he and Audrey welcomed five children. In 1992, the Reitzlers opened the Dinner Bell, a 24-hour restaurant located near the Malcom exit off of I-80. 

It was at the Dinner Bell that Reitzler learned to cook and bake pies, motivated to improve upon the subpar quality of the store-bought pies he had been selling. 

“They were buying pies and he was like, ‘Well, these are horrible for the price we have to charge,’” said Darla Harmon, Reitzler’s daughter. “So he got his mom’s recipe, and just started making pies on his own.”

While operating the Dinner Bell, the Reitzlers also began renting the West Side Family Restaurant in Grinnell. The West Side Family Restaurant is still open, but is no longer managed by the Reitzler family. A few years later in 2003, the Reitzlers opened a cafe on Grinnell’s Fourth Ave., naming it after their initials –– A & M. 

A & M Cafe soon became home to a community of loyal customers and dedicated staff members. Amanda Albertson worked with Reitzler at A & M for 19 years, starting within a year of the restaurant’s opening. “I started working with him when I was 24, so he pretty much watched me grow up,” she said.

Ashley Bishop also grew up at A & M. “I started working for Merle when I was 14, and I’m 26 now,” she said. “He taught me a lot in the kitchen, taught me how to properly cook eggs.”

Albertson proudly remembers the popularity of Reitzler’s pies with customers from Grinnell and beyond. “He sold pies all over the country. People would come in from different parts of the country, talk about how his pies were the best,” she said. 

Ed Senn `79, a member of the College’s Board of Trustees and former president of the Grinnell College Alumni Council, was one of these recurring customers. 

Senn said his favorite pie was Reitzler’s custard pie — a close runner-up was his rhubarb. 

“His crusts were excellent, just excellent, and he never revealed his secret,” Senn said.

“What kept me coming back was Merle’s hospitality, Merle’s smile,” said Senn. “And of course, Merle’s hash browns.” Senn described Reitzler’s hash browns as “melt-in-your-mouth hash browns that you really can’t get on the East Coast.”

What kept me coming back was Merle’s hospitality, Merle’s smile.

— Ed Senn `79

Breakfasts at A & M were memorable for both Albertson and Bishop, though not necessarily for the hash browns. Early morning shifts formed some of their most valuable experiences while working with Reitzler. 

“Early morning conversations with him are probably my fondest memories,” said Albertson. 

“I used to open with him on Saturday mornings, so I would get there at about five o’clock in the morning. It would just be me and him, and we would just talk about life,” echoed Bishop. “He was always there to give me advice.”

Reitzler’s dedication to A & M extended beyond early morning shifts. Harmon noted that he would go to great lengths to keep the restaurant open for customers, even if it meant compromising his own comfort. 

“He would get up at three o’clock every morning. And a lot of times, he wouldn’t get home until seven or eight o’clock at night,” Harmon said. “When there was bad weather in Grinnell, there was always a restaurant that was open because there was a bed upstairs, and he would sleep there so that he could make sure that he opened.”

“I still even say today, ‘Bright and Merle-y,’” Bishop said. 

During the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in Grinnell, Reitzler kept A & M Cafe open by selling individual pies online. “If it weren’t for his pie business, he would not have been able to stay open,” Harmon said. 

“I think the community just supported him so wonderfully during that time,” Albertson said. 

“He donated pies quite often,” Albertson added. “The hospital would call and put an order in. We didn’t deliver, but we made sure that we would deliver to the hospital.”

Today, Reitzler’s pie-making legacy continues through his granddaughter Kelci Gould. Gould runs a business baking pies in her hometown of Attica, Indiana. In Reitzler’s memory, the business is called “Merle’s Homemade Pies.” Gould was motivated to learn and preserve Reitzler’s pie-making techniques after receiving news of his declining health over the summer of 2023. 

“His pie recipes, he valued them highly because they partially came from his mom. He spent his 30 years in the restaurant business just perfecting them,” said Gould. “It was cool to spend this time with him before he passed, just seeing how his brain works, just seeing him calculate in his head the measurements … to get it perfectly done.”

Reitzler’s nonstop work ethic continued well into his battle with cancer, especially as he taught Gould his pie-making secrets. “They made pies on Thanksgiving … and at that time he was on hospice,” remembered Harmon. 

As for Reitzler’s legacy in Grinnell, Senn said, “He was a hidden jewel in the jewel of the prairie.” 

Reitzler with his wife, Audrey.


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    DougwachaFeb 11, 2024 at 11:02 am

    Merle was a great guy & excellent cook!!! I.have ate there alot of times never ever had a bad meal! R.I.P. Merle godspeed your family…