PepperTheo is an intriguing name for a restaurant. Launched by Joe Hess and his business partner, Christine Hess, in December 2019, the two also operate Cracked Pepper Catering. Hence, the “Pepper” part of the name. As for “Theo,” that references the fact that the café is located in Dietz Refectory on the grounds of the Lancaster Theological Seminary.
The restaurant’s setting simply oozes character. Dietz Refectory, which dates back to 1916, was built in the Tudor Revival style and features timber roof trusses, as well as two large fireplaces whose mantels boast original Mercer tiles crafted by the Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown. The windows, which are embellished with stained-glass medallions, were made from green glass that was repurposed from Belgian greenhouses damaged during World War II.
Joe and Christine (who are not related) have spent a combined 50-plus years in the hospitality industry. They opened Cracked Pepper Catering in September 2016. They both credit the late Bob Fenninger for helping them achieve success and cherish the “Z” that was gifted to them when the FENZ sign was removed from the restaurant’s exterior following Fenninger’s death.
As for opening PepperTheo, “We call this our COVID-19 journey,” says Joe, who always admired the space. When the opportunity to open a café there arose, he was excited, but was aware the space needed a new kitchen, which he says a donor to the seminary provided.
Plans called for PepperTheo to open in March 2020, but then the pandemic hit and its debut was pushed back to October 2020. “We started with lunch and then added dinner hours,” Joe explains. Christine adds, “Initially, we focused on outdoor dining in the courtyard outside the building. We made the decision to close in December 2020, when we could no longer seat people outside.” PepperTheo reopened in May 2021.
Joe describes PepperTheo as having a rustic, classic supper club feel thanks to the setting. “We want our guests to have a great dining experience. It’s interesting to see people’s reactions when they step through the door,” Joe remarks. “We had a young adult guest approach the entrance with his head buried in his phone. When he crossed the threshold, he looked up from the phone and got this amazed look as he took in the room.”
PepperTheo can seat just over 100 guests. Seasonal outdoor dining is available in the adjacent courtyard. The lunch menu features traditional fare such as sandwiches, soups, salads and sweets. Dinner features a four-course prix fixe menu that changes weekly with a price range of $40 to $50 per person. Weekly menus are posted online and on social media. “Our chef, Zach Blair, shops Central Market for his ingredients, so we can provide fresh, local fare,” Joe explains.
Seating for dinner is by reservation, and menu items are made to order. “When you call to make a reservation, our staff asks about dietary restrictions or special requests,” he says. “We maintain information about our guests’ preferences and dietary restrictions, so they don’t have to provide it to us every time they make a reservation.”
Since the menu changes weekly there’s no signature menu item. However, there is a signature sweet – a dark-chocolate bark created by Miesse Candies. It’s available exclusively at PepperTheo. Note: PepperTheo is BYOB.
PepperTheo also uses the space for private events such as rehearsal dinners, bridal and baby showers, birthday parties, holiday gatherings, anniversary celebrations, corporate events and small weddings. “We do a lot of second weddings,” Joe reports. For such events, the space can accommodate approximately 100 for a seated dinner and 127 for cocktails. “The look of PepperTheo really lends itself to a Harry Potter-themed party,” Christine observes. “We hope to host such a party in the near future.”
PepperTheo Café & Events is located in Dietz Refectory on the campus of Lancaster Theological Seminary, 555 West James Street, Lancaster. Lunch is available 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Wednesday through Friday. Dinner is available starting at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday and Friday. Reservations are required for dinner seating and can be made via phone or text. PepperTheo also has private event space. For more information, call 717-341-6565 or visit peppertheocafe.com, Facebook and Instagram.