People began to trickle into the Sunoco station around noon, each one greeted by a sing-song hello. From behind a small counter, Cathie Josephs and Debbie Goldberg worked in a well-choreographed frenzy, making sandwiches and salads, taking call-in orders, and whizzing around their order-taker and their grill-master, all in a kitchen space the size of a modest walk-in closet.
As the weekday lunch rush got into full swing, the crowd grew inside Three Crazy Ladies, the takeout and catering business run by Josephs and Goldberg in, of all places, a Chester County gas station on a busy thoroughfare.
The two started the place nearly five years ago with a third woman who has since stepped away to pursue other ventures.
Natives of the area, they built their reputation mainly through word-of-mouth. Regulars and newcomers alike rave not only about the quality of the food – specials include Chilean sea bass tacos, salmon BLTs, and banh mi – but also about the ladies' warmth and their funny banter, which customers say can improve even their worst days.
What keeps these middle-aged mothers moving this quickly, this happily, every day?
“I think it’s magic,” Goldberg said, with a matter-of-fact shrug. “We’re passionate about it.”
And they love connecting with people, Josephs added.
“This is our community. We know these people,” she said. “I like to think of myself as the non-mayor of Malvern.”
To outsiders, the success of Three Crazy Ladies — at the intersection of Lancaster Avenue and Route 29 — may seem improbable. In the surrounding blocks, drivers pass Wegmans, Panera Bread, and other chains, ones that have plenty of seating and a more mainstream reputation.
Yet Three Crazy Ladies, with no indoor seating and not a single sign out front alerting passersby to its existence, draws crowds — businesspeople who work in the many nearby office parks, parents of Great Valley and Malvern Preparatory School students, and other locals who are in the know.
Many of the regulars said they were naturally skeptical at first.
“Someone said, ‘You’ve got to go to this gas station,' I was like, ‘What?’ " said Nicole Gannon, 37, of Broomall, who now returns often for the fresh food and the ladies' “warm and fuzzy” personalities.
Alex Carr, 27, of Pittsburgh, and Pete Giardiniere, 24, of West Chester, were turned on to Three Crazy Ladies by coworkers at the Cerner Corp.’s Malvern campus down the road.
“People mentioned when we first started that there’s this weird place in a gas station that we have to go to,” Carr said.
Now, the pair visit regularly and take lunch back to the office.
Paul Withington, 66, said Three Crazy Ladies is a fan favorite in his nearby East Goshen neighborhood. He and his family love the portobello mushroom and meatball sandwiches, and he was recently impressed by the black bean quinoa burger.
“It’s fabulous, always fresh,” Withington said. And of the ladies, “they’re really just great to see. They’re high energy, really funny.”
Nick Arnone, 24, who works at a neighboring pharmaceutical company, agreed.
“They’re amazing,” he said. “They always get a smile on your face.”
As they sped about the kitchen on a recent rainy day, the ladies asked customers about work and their families.
Josephs added a complimentary dessert to a woman’s takeout order — “for your girls,” she instructed.
A few minutes later, she asked a group of men whether they’d tried the free samples of brownies and Carmelita cookies. They shook their heads no. “Get ... over here and try them,” Josephs said, beckoning with a free arm.
These personal touches don’t go unappreciated. On its Facebook page, Three Crazy Ladies boasts a perfect 5-star rating, based on the reviews of more than 250 customers, some of whom say they drive as long as an hour each way to eat there. Its Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Google reviews are similarly glowing, complete with mouth-watering photos of buffalo chicken cheesesteaks, salads with nuts and fresh fruit, and breakfast sandwiches overflowing with bacon, egg, and avocado.
As much as these crazy ladies love their customers, they love food, too, Josephs said. And it shows.
In compliance with state food safety regulations, the entire menu is made in store by Josephs, Goldberg, and friend Mike DeMul, who has “become one of the three ladies — without the dress,” Josephs said, laughing. On a recent day, DeMul manned the grill, holding true to his reputation as a “quesadilla master," said Zoe Goldberg, Debbie’s daughter, who helps out on busy days, usually Thursdays and Fridays.
The crew arrives each weekday morning by 5 a.m., opens the doors at 6, and feeds hungry patrons breakfast, lunch, and seasonal specials until 3 p.m. Some days, they’re home by 4. If they cater a party, they may work until midnight.
They put thought into their specials, which they share each morning with their 4,000 Facebook followers and repeat often during the lunch rush (many customers said they almost always order the special). During a frigid streak earlier this month, each day brought new comfort foods, including French onion grilled cheese with vegan Thai curry lentil soup, and lasagna with a side salad and zesty Italian dressing.
They have a few regular specials, too, which are named after their most loyal customers.
Online, their daily posts with food specials also come with a side of good old TLC: a warning to bundle up and prepare for bad weather, or a reminder that the crazy ladies are available for help or a free meal or a hug if anyone has fallen on hard times. These kind of messages are shared in person, too.
“We can see if someone has a frown on their face,” Josephs said. “I’m like, ‘Tell me, I gotta know.’ "
Blame motherly instincts, she and Goldberg say, and nostalgia for a time when mom-and-pop stores, where everyone knew everyone, were commonplace.
Josephs, 53, originally of Pottstown, and Goldberg, 64, of Media, met about two decades ago when they were mothers of young boys in the Great Valley schools. Josephs had worked in the restaurant business from a young age. At their sons' soccer games, they always found themselves working in the concession stands together.
They tossed around the idea of starting a restaurant or catering business, but it wasn’t until their kids were grown that they put their plan into action. They found the Sunoco space on Craigslist and took a chance, knowing it would mean less overhead and greater ability to charge reasonable prices for a large quantity of high-quality food (nothing on their regular menu costs more than $7.75).
“We knew, being in a gas station, we had to be top-notch,” Josephs said. “You’re not getting second chances if you’re not doing top-notch in a gas station.”
So far, they haven’t needed that second chance, proving themselves more than qualified to make delicious food and to care for their customers. When they ask customers “how are you?" they want an honest answer, they said.