Driving through the winding back roads of Pennsylvania is always like stepping through a bucolic portal. Every few miles you’ll find a small village that will thrust you back in time; a corner shop, a precious few centuries-old houses, and the local inn which used to host weary travelers passing through on carriages. At the top of a hill a small community called Sumneytown awaits you. As you walk up to the 3 story colonial structure in the center of town, you’re suddenly aware of the layers of history that have left their mark. Stone and brick from different eras make up the frame of the original stagecoach stop along this stretch of road.
Immediately upon entering you’re greeted with a wooden carved pineapple affixed to the top of the entryway newel post. This pineapple is deliberately placed here to welcome you in. Once you cross the threshold you’re no longer just a patron, you’re a friend. The current owners pride themselves on this type of environment. If you happen to dine alone they’ll happily introduce you to their regulars who always have an open seat at their table for such an occasion. The Francis Kaufman House Restaurant pays homage to a time where neighbors helped each other out and everybody knew your name- kind of like Cheers, but with ghosts.
I was meeting the owners, Executive Chef Bill Francis and his Wife Desiree Francis. It was clear that both possessed a thirst to keep their restaurant intimate and friendly. “You have to put positive energy into the atmosphere”, Desiree would later tell me.
I learned the expansive history from Desiree who admits the exact timeline of the building is a little murky. Originally starting as a house in the early 18th Century it would remain that way for nearly 200 years when it turned over, briefly, into a cigar factory. After that it went through a series of different ownerships to include The Sumneytown Hotel, The Brey Hotel, and lastly, before Desiree and Bill took over, The Kaufman House.
Before my hosts purchased the property at auction in 2003 many of the former owners put a lot of care into this sprawling property. In the remaining years of the last Century the building had fallen so far into despair it soon would be demolished if someone didn’t step in and offer to save it.
Thankfully, Desiree and Bill had recently moved back to the area and Bill’s dream of owning his own restaurant and his unexplainable draw to this unique piece of land gave life to The Kaufman House again.
Chef Bill still heavily relies on the traditional Americana fare that’s been the foundation of the previous eateries that have lived within these walls. An ambitious Chef who started cooking when he was just a boy would seek out top restaurants to nurture his skills after graduating from culinary school at Johnson & Wales. Confidently, Bill tells me about his first few jobs in the industry, “I would take jobs because I saw them written up in a magazine. It could be two hours away, but I’d get that job. They must’ve been doing something right to get written up. So I pursued those companies.”
With his classical training and his travels cooking through Europe he also combines many techniques and dishes used in fine dining. He likes to call it, “country fare with international flare”. Being a Pennsylvanian gal and foodie, I can totally dig that!
This mindset absolutely echoes throughout the building. As you explore the many corridors and rooms you find a familiar friendliness with flares for the finer things in life. Antiques and oil paintings Desiree has personally picked out, all lovingly adorn carefully selected locations.
It’s not just the history or the rave reviews that brought me to The Francis Kaufman House. Employees have reported seeing shadows in the basement and upper floors. Desiree has been pushed, playfully, by a little boy spirit. Guests and employees have also reported seeing an apparition they call “The Italian”. There have been numerous EVP & spirit box sessions by local ghost hunters that have indicated intelligent communication, as well as instances of objects moving.
I start my tour in the main dining room on the first floor. Being an older building meant that Bill and Desiree had to get creative with their layout. Both are lovers of history and neither wanted to upset the integrity of the original design. There are many different sections of The Francis Kaufman House, complete with four different dining areas. There’s the main dining area that adjoins the bar, seating perfect for brunch, lunch, or dinner. Then there’s The Wine Room, one of the restaurant’s most active areas for ghosts I’m told, that acts as a specialty room for larger parties. Lastly, paying tribute to the location’s heritage there’s The Americana Room. This is one of the largest and most private areas offering a chance for bridal showers and birthday parties.
Chef Bill and Desiree also offer a number of specials throughout the year. Every third Thursday is their $16.99 dinner buffet. It’s kind of like a monthly Thanksgiving. Plenty of food, BYOB, but you have the added benefit of not having awkward conversations with drunk relatives at the table. Then there’s Chef’s famously sought after smoked brisket, ribs, and homemade BBQ that takes 8-12 hours to prepare. If seafood is more your taste every summer Desiree drives up to Maine to collect fresh lobster. If you decide to partake in their lobster-fest get it fast! Last time they sold out in two hours! Lastly, and seriously, you cannot beat this price, every Sunday is brunch starting at, get your coat because you’re gonna want to jump in the car and go once I tell you, $8.00! Yes, a whole $8.00! Along with your order you get a salad and desert bar to start your Sunday on the right foot.
Now, spoiler alert, most of my conversations revolve around ghosts, so of course, I have to ask Desiree to tell me all the details regarding their experiences. I’m informed that almost every area of the building has seen some type of activity. Several witnesses have often seen a little boy that appears in the glass door that separates this first floor dining room from the back entrance and kitchen.
Desiree mentions a more disturbing entity that seems to have been confirmed during a ghost hunt. While on the first floor, they often hear what sounds like the dragging of a body on the second floor. While a group of investigators were conducting EVP sessions on the second floor they had a startling response upon playback. Listening to their recording it sounded like a woman was screaming in pain and fear.
One of the most interesting morsels Desiree shares with me is how young patrons often mention seeing the little boy spirit. She recalls one child in particular who came in with her parents and immediately started telling them there was a little boy in the room. She pulled up a chair for her new, but invisible, friend and spent the time during her meal chatting with him. When Desiree asked whom the chair was for the girl unapologetically told her it was for the little boy. The parents, unfazed, confirmed, “She sees ghosts all the time.”
I find this fascinating. In my line of work I often meet with children who seem to be more perceptive of the unknown. Is it that they haven’t been taught to ignore these bizarre occurrences? Or is it simply a child’s imagination? Still, when a child who has no knowledge of the alleged supernatural activity and starts confirming what many adults have witnessed you have to take their experience into account.
The bar area has a rather tragic specter. Although, not confirmed by any documents, a patron who used to visit the restaurant when it was The Kaufman House said two men shot each other in the bar area and bled out. Sadly, many people report seeing a gentleman in the bar. Desiree and many others believe it to be one of the two men who lost their life here.
The Wine Room is next and this seems to be an area of particular interest. One of the common themes I noticed throughout the building is the quirky way all the paintings are hanging from the wall. Not by your typical nail, but by heavy steel or fishing wire. I asked Desiree what led her to decorate in such a peculiar way. With a smile she told me about “The Italian”.
In this room they used to have a picture of Italy hanging as its centerpiece. Multiple witnesses had seen this painting start to shake and then crash to the ground on separate occasions. There were several other paintings throughout that suffered a similar fate.
Desiree is quick to point out that it seemed like certain paintings were targets, “The pictures, you’d see em’ move and if they (the ghosts) didn’t like em’ they would break em’.”
In the Wine Room however, this painting seemed to be of great interest to the spectral forces. Desiree had finally had it when the painting of Italy had its last tumble and the frame broke. She decided then that she wouldn’t take any more chances and strung all the paintings up with wire.
Besides her frustration with her permanent guests ruining her antiques Desiree said it was also scaring customers away, “The pictures, right in front of them, would be moving down the wall.” Looking around she smiled at her decorating choice with what seemed to be an instant of realizing how incredible and bizarre these events in her life are, “ It’s terrible to see (the decorating choice), but they (the ghosts) can’t get a hold of them.”
As we continue to the second level that was once the living quarters of many owners past, I ask Desiree to fill me in more on this mysterious entity they call “The Italian”. There have been countless witnesses to this tall dark drink of ghostly water. He appears middle aged with dark features and wearing some kind of hat. Desiree was the first to spot him years ago through the window of the second floor. While she found this jarring, she had also come to expect it.
When she and Bill first bought the property she could feel that something was there with them,“There was a presence.” Bill, the skeptic of the two wasn’t so convinced.
That all changed through the years of ownership when Bill witnessed shadows, objects moving, and the sounds of phantom footsteps.
A family friend, affectionately named Big Daddy (did I just find an even bigger Golden Girls fan than me?!), was walking out front with several others when one of their companions said to Bill, “Someone got into your building.” No one should’ve been there at the time. Concerned, they turned to the second floor balcony and saw this tall man with dark features wearing a hat standing and staring. As they watched in disbelief the apparition vanished.
No one quite knows who “The Italian” is, but that certainly doesn’t stop him from showing up.
Desiree, Bill, employees, guests, and ghost hunters all claim the third floor to be the most haunted. When I press as to why that might be Desiree delves into the sordid past surrounding us.
Starting in the Depression Era it was believed that prostitution was occurring as part of the original business. While that stopped sometime later the building seemed to welcome another loop of illegal activity within the last few decades. Multiple people with knowledge of the past have come forward to tell the current proprietors that the location was used as a high-class prostitution house and sex club. According to Desiree’s sources, this time period was were darker and many allege that various levels of abuse occurred.
To Desiree, this makes sense. When she bought the property she found a board nailed to the wall above a bed with chains attached to it. She suggests it was used to restrict someone. Guests have heard male and female screams coming from this room. Desiree also connects this knowledge to the woman heard screaming on the EVPs. Lastly, she found a peephole in a wall looking into one of the bathrooms, which completely unnerved her.
There’s a ton of speculation regarding what occurred and who may have been victims, but the activity does seem to suggest that something sinister may have left an imprint, or what we in the paranormal field would call, a residual haunting.
Stepping away from the horrid past the upper levels are just as lovingly cared for as the first floor. Every room has specific antiques. Many of the room’s trims are painted antique blue with matching curtains, brought in from Rhode Island, to set the tone.
As an antique collector myself I know how difficult it is to find just the right piece to bring a room to it’s full potential. Desiree has done just that through thoughtfully selected items.
The most interesting aspect I find about the upstairs is that various individuals, many not knowing about the haunting at the time, have experienced the movement of objects. Painters have lost supplies, an entire vacuum changed rooms when a cleaner walked away for a few moments, and contractors have had tools disappear.
When this first started happening to Desiree she was concerned for her mental health, “Every time I left, I’d put something down and it was moved and I thought I was going bonkers! So the next time I put something down I’d put a piece of tape down.”
Marking each area Desiree was determined to figure out why her memory seemed to be fading, until the same activity started happening to others. When speaking of the objects she states with a smile, “Some of the stuff we still haven’t found.” Satisfied and relieved with the fact that it wasn’t just her mind playing tricks she repeats to me, “I really thought I was going bonkers!”
These instances upset her the most though. She very much wanted to restore the building as much as they could during their renovation and felt that the ghosts were holding up the process. Exasperated she began bargaining with the ghostly tenants, “I’m here to help the building. If you want me to leave someone nasty might take over and get you out of here.” That didn’t stop the activity, but Desiree assures me there’s now an understanding.
“When I’m here by myself I talk to them. I just say, I’m here to help the building, don’t scare me.”
Bill has been in his pristine kitchen preparing his award winning Flourless Chocolate Torte that many Philadelphia bakeries sell. I’m invited to meet him in the bar below for a tasting. With just three ingredients Chef Bill has prepared a sinful chocolate desert. This is the essence of The Francis Kaufman House, easygoing indulgence.
If you’re looking to drink, be sure to pick up your favorite wine at the store before heading out. The Francis Kaufman House is BYOB. This could be quite the adventure. From Chef Bill’s must try Seafood Pot Pie to his famous eggs Benedict at brunch you can certainly have a fun meal out with friends or family pairing your favorite drinks with any number of his delectable homemade dishes.
Chef Bill recommends many choices for a first timer. In addition to the Seafood Pot Pie, brunch, and BBQ, the house favorite and one he enjoys making the most is the eggplant lasagna. Desiree says if you’re not feeling any of the above-mentioned suggestions you can’t go wrong with the perfectly cooked filet.
The main menu at Francis Kaufman House stays the same, for good reason, most customers travel thirty miles just to get their taste buds on these desired dishes. It’s always good to check in with the restaurant though as Chef will offer specials, as well as cater to special diets.
In addition to the handcrafted menu Chef and Desiree pride themselves on growing many of their own ingredients. Basil, dill, tomatoes, and squash just to name a few. If you’re lucky they may even have an abundant growing season where they’ll gift patrons with fruits, vegetables, and herbs. “Everyone left with a watermelon”, Desiree joked when speaking of a recent summer where the sweet fruit seemed to take over her garden.
Desiree proudly spoke of her husband’s talent in the kitchen as well as his kind heart that is the lifeblood of The Francis Kaufman House.
Working in many fine eateries through his career Chef can take any leftovers and make a gourmet meal. An acquaintance of theirs who was diagnosed with cancer, and has since passed, was grateful for Chef’s kindness and cooking skills. He would come over every Sunday before opening up the restaurant, take leftovers from her refrigerator, and whip up an exquisite meal for her and her family at no cost.
After savoring the dangerously amazing torte we talked about their thoughts on owning a haunted restaurant. Desiree has her theories on why activity has changed from being negative to more benign, “Something negative must have been here the first couple of years because you could feel it, something wasn’t right. Now everything has changed. Now it’s a positive place, it (the positivity) makes the ghosts positive.”
It’s clear to see that no detail went unnoticed while they were renovating and Chef Bill was crafting his menu. cherry and mahogany wood are purposely chosen throughout the building to brighten it up and drive out any residue from the building’s seedy past. A friend and minister, Mary Ann, cleanses the building every two weeks to ward off any negative energy that may linger on. Chef Bill and Desiree through their actions and generosity offer positivity to every customer that comes through the door. “You’re not just a customer, you’re part of our family. There’s so much negative in the world, there’s got to be some place you can go to relax and be laid back. We’re not rush rush”, Desiree assures me, “we want people to enjoy their food and every time you come back the food will be the same. Consistency”.
Beyond the hauntingly good torte and, well, just the haunting ghost stories I saw two people determined to make a positive impact on their community through excellent food and good company. Is The Francis Kaufman House a haunted safe haven from our modern day stressors? This is certainly a theory I’m willing to test!
If you can’t get to The Francis Kaufman House for some much needed R&R, may I suggest having a slice of it in your very own home?
Chef Bill has given us his award winning Flourless Chocolate Torte recipe! Check it out below and be sure to tag us on social media @hauntedkitchens with how yours turned out! Reminder, the amounts listed below are suitable for restaurants, you may have to cut in half for your home version.
Flourless Chocolate Torte~
*2 lbs. semi-sweet chocolate
*1 lb. unsalted butter
*13 whole eggs ~ room temperature
- Preheat over to 450 degrees
- Melt butter and chocolate together
- Whip eggs 15 mins at MAX speed
- Slowly fold the chocolate/butter mixture into the whipped eggs
- Prepare a springform pan for a water bath
- Pour the mixture into a lined springform pan
- Bake for a total of 15 mins. ~ 10 mins covered first. Finish with 5 mins uncovered
- Let cool
Special thanks to Chef Bill and Desiree Francis of the Francis Kaufman House! Can’t wait to come back for the Seafood Pot Pie!
Photography: Rachel Smith