When Lil’ Chef closed Sunday, the Mount Pleasant community lost a 20-year staple.
The restaurant, a staple on Mission Street since 1993, closed at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Owner Jim Steele said he is looking to retire to spend more time with his wife and to help her with medical issues and wanted to sell the business as a result. LaBelle Management purchased the building and the antique store next door.
“I’m not exactly sure what the LaBelles are going to do with the property. Maybe that’s a good thing,” he said with a laugh.
Mount Pleasant senior Alissa Barrett has been eating at Lil’ Chef since her high school years. As she left the restaurant for the last time just before close, she lamented the loss of yet another local business.
“We’ve lost all these other places, and now we’re losing this too?” Barrett said. “It’s sad. It’s really sad.”
Since rumors of the restaurant’s closing picked up late last week, General Manager Brian Stokes said the community support has been astounding.
“I wasn’t expecting this huge outpour from the community,” Stokes said. “We’ve been packed all weekend. I didn’t think everyone would rush to get here to have a last meal. It’s been sad, but good.”
As for the 20 people currently employed at Lil’ Chef, their futures are unknown.
Kristen McCuddin, a waitress who has been there for three years, said LaBelle is hosting a job fair for the employees.
“We’re going to a job fair on Tuesday where LaBelle’s management team will be available for us,” McCuddin said. “I’m hoping they’ll come through with jobs in the area for us, but I’m really hesitant.”
LaBelle also owns Big Boy, Pixie, Bennigan’s, Big Apple Bagels, the Italian Oven and Ponderosa in Mount Pleasant.
McCuddin is a senior at Central Michigan University, hoping to graduate in May. She’s been at Lil’ Chef her entire college career, but is worried more about her coworkers being unemployed than herself.
“I’m one of the more fortunate people in this situation. I’m in the home stretch of my time here in Mount Pleasant, so a few months of unemployment won’t hurt me,” she said. ”However, we have a lot of people struggling to make ends meet here, and I’m worried for them.”
Sarah Trofatter, mother of a 2-year-old boy and six-year employee of Lil’ Chef, is worried, too.
“Things will be pretty rough if I can’t get a job soon. I’m the only one who makes money and brings it home,” she said. “When it comes down to it, I have some money, but I don’t know if it will last me a long time. I will have to be very careful with my spending.”
Trofatter is banking on the job fair to find employment, but said she will keep an eye out for any place hiring.
The part she’ll miss the most about Lil’ Chef, she said, is the community she’s formed there.
“It’s just going to be like losing a home,” Trofatter said. “I’ve worked there for six years, but I’ve been going there for long before that. I feel like we’re all losing a part of our lives.”
Stokes said a huge thank you is necessary for all of the support and community involvement Lil’ Chef has had in the last 20 years.
“We’d like to thank the community, our customers, CMU and the Mount Pleasant area,” he said. “We’ve had a great relationship with the community and college over the last 20 years, and we’re definitely going to miss everybody.”
The restaurant closed for a brief period of time in 2009 in order to undergo $100,000 worth of renovations and become a smoke-free location. Once the Mount Pleasant location closes, the nearest Lil’ Chef Restaurant will be located on Midland at 1616 S. Saginaw Road.