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Ross Simpson sat in a booth inside the grand fireplace room of Clara’s on the River recently and reflected on his three decades owning the downtown Battle Creek restaurant.
“We’ve been here 30 years, so this is mom and dad’s restaurant. Then kids go away and come back with their kids, and the cycle starts all over again,” he said. “The cool thing about being in an old building like this, a lot of restaurants have to remodel every five to 10 years, and we just get better.”
Clara’s on the River officially turns 30 on June 8, when it will host an anniversary celebration with birthday cake, T-shirts, raffle giveaways and special discounts.
Sandwiched between Willard Library and the Battle Creek River at 44 N. McCamly St., Clara’s is downtown Battle Creek’s longest-operating restaurant. It began three decades ago when Simpson and the late Peter Jubeck took the former Michigan Central Railroad depot and transformed it into an eatery celebrating local history.
How a train station became a restaurant
The Michigan Central Railroad depot was built in 1888, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The station was a major transit point for soldiers in wartime and was a regular whistle stop for “every president from (William) McKinley to Gerald Ford,” Simpson said.
The depot remained in operation for much of the 20th century, becoming an Amtrak station in 1970. It closed in the early 1980s as a result of a city railroad consolidation project undertaken to clear up downtown traffic congestion.
The Battle Creek Intermodal Facility opened in 1982 just blocks away at 119 S. McCamly St., rendering both the Amtrak station and the Grand Trunk Railroad station obsolete. Tracks were removed from near the Amtrak site, and the building was vacant until it was rehabilitated as a restaurant.
Jubeck, who brought Sir Pizza to Michigan and the original Clara’s, located at another former train depot, to Lansing, died in 2003. The Lansing Clara’s operated from 1979 until 2016.
“We had a model to work off of,” Simpson said. “Once we were remodeling this place and people found we were buying antiques, they found us.”
Turning back the clock
Clara’s clock tower has been part of the Battle Creek skyline for more than a century. It got a new face after the restaurant opened in 1992, and was again repaired in 2020 as part of a $350,000 renovation of the restaurant.
Just as the clock tower harkens to an earlier time, the interior of the restaurant is filled with historic photos, portraits and artifacts celebrating Battle Creek’s history.
Among the items on display are an original bench and a stretcher used at the depot to transport injured soldiers to nearby Percy Jones Army Hospital.
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Some of the first cereal boxes ever printed in Battle Creek sit in a glass display case, and a rocking horse from the former Leila Post Hospital rests above the large fireplace.
“Shortly after we opened, I had a guy walk in and say, “‘I used to ride that as a kid,” Simpson recalled.
Familiar and new
Along with its historic ambiance, Clara’s on the River is known for having an expansive menu.
The original Clara’s menu was 17 pages. Amid the pandemic, the eatery started printing its entire menu all on a single tri-fold paper that can be discarded or changed on the fly if the restaurant runs into supply issues.
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In response to COVID-19, Clara’s temporarily stopped its popular brunch offering before bringing it back in March 2021. The restaurant used the period when dining in was paused or limited to replace carpeting, reupholster booths, add a carryout service space, upgrade its kitchen, and add automatic door openers and touch-free bathroom fixtures.
It also brought heated cabanas to its patio seating and became a participating business in the downtown social district, where alcoholic beverages can be carried and consumed on city property.
A labor shortage is one of the bigger challenges facing the restaurant industry today, and Simpson said while Clara’s on the River is one of downtown’s largest employers with 55 workers, he could “probably add 20 more.”
As for how Clara’s has become part of the fabric of Battle Creek and lasted 30 years when the majority of independently owned restaurants fail within five years under normal economic circumstances, Simpson said it boils down to being genuine.
“Get to know your customers and staff. Have the wisdom to take care of good employees and courage to get rid of bad employees,” he said. “Give all my managers the credit. Because we’re a mom and pop, family business.”
Contact reporter Nick Buckley at [email protected] or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter:@NickJBuckley