by Jessica Giles | April 1, 2023

You Get to Be the Chef at This Beloved Pancake House in De Leon Springs

The Old Sugar Mill Pancake House reopened under new ownership in November 2022, but the flapjacks are as good as ever.

This cook-your-own pancake house originally opened in the 1960s. Photography courtesy of Guest Services.

A lopsided flower, a Mickey Mouse with uneven ears, I even once tried to make an ambitious giraffe that more closely resembled a misshapen watering can when all was said and done. In most restaurants, I’d be chastised for playing with my food, but at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill in De Leon Springs, everyone does it. 

The cook-your-own-pancake house, which opened in the 1960s, sits just steps away from the bubbling spring inside a 100-year-old replica of Florida’s first water-powered sugar mill. It’s a no-frills, Old Florida experience in the heart of the state. The moment you step through the swinging screen doors, you’re met with a haze of buttery smoke, a chorus of sizzles (and the occasional aroma of a burnt flapjack). The crowning centerpiece of each wooden table is an inset electric griddle. 

The moment you step through the swinging screen doors, you’re met with a haze of buttery smoke, a chorus of sizzles (and the occasional aroma of a burnt flapjack).

It’s the first clue that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill breakfast joint. Although you’re free to order the breakfast sandwich or biscuits and gravy, you might get a funny look from the locals. The real draw of this down-home haunt is that the diners can double as the chef.

The all-you-can-eat-pancakes come in a pitcher, rather than on a plate, and with a side of spatula. Then, it’s up to you to cook the perfect pancake. Some, like my family, turn it into their very own version of Nailed It! by pouring elaborate batter masterpieces onto the griddle only to be disappointed upon the flip. My dad relished the opportunity to roast his flapjacks to his preferred shade of black. Others pile theirs high with add-ons such as fresh strawberries, peanut butter, chocolate chips and pecans—flavors ideal for masking hotcakes that spent a little too much time on the heat. 

Schwarze Enterprises operated the Old Spanish Sugar Mill for 61 years and amassed a cultlike flapjack-flipping following. But ahead of the owners’ contract ending in September 2022, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Recreation and Parks called for new vendor proposals. A team of independent evaluators suggested that the department move forward with a new vendor, and so the pancake empire spatula was passed to Virginia-based Guest Services. 

“Guest Services, Inc. will continue to operate the restaurant guests have come to love over many generations,” wrote Alexandra Kuchta, press secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. 

The restaurant reopened in November 2022 as the Old Sugar Mill Pancake House, still boasting the same cook-your-own concept, sugar mill facade and homey interior. Although locals love to debate if there’s a difference in the batter, most are just relieved that the mill remains a place where playing with your food is perfectly acceptable.