Saying goodbye was difficult for Jim Steele.
It was hard to tell as the 78-year-old paced through his restaurant in its final hours in business, clearing off tables with a soaked, pink dishrag with an energy that would put the average busboy to shame.
It was hard to tell as he occasionally embraced regulars, both locals and students, with a hug and a smile, reminiscing about memories made together over the span of 20-plus years in business.
And it was hard to tell as he cracked jokes with his employees when he found that rare moment to stop working and simply relax.
But as Steele stared through the glass doors of Lil’ Chef just after he closed them for the final time, he couldn’t help but feel upset.
“Closing those doors, that was tough to do,” he said, the enormity of the moment hitting home.
It was just after 3 p.m. on Sunday at 1720 S. Mission St. The couples, families and students who had filed into the unassuming, brick restaurant and made its final day one of the busiest in its 21-year history – had all gone on.
The wait staff gathered around a corner booth and a table to the right of those doors to enjoy a final meal from what was for many of them their longtime place of employment. Hamburgers, french fries, omelets and many more of the restaurant’s popular dishes left the kitchen for the final time, this time in white. Styrofoam takeout boxes were used as a way to avoid washing more dishes.
It was then that Steele said he wouldn’t miss the business side of owning a restaurant as much as he would miss the people side of it.
“You get to know these people over the years,” said Steele, a plain-spoken man with the white hair, wrinkles and eyes of a man who has seen it all. “They’re like friends now. They’re like family. It’s tough to say goodbye to them.”
Lil’ Chef through the ages
Lil’ Chef opened in April 1993. That year, Bill Clinton was beginning his first term in office, looking to tackle a struggling economy and health care. Longtime Central Michigan football coach Herb Deromedi finished his last season leading the Chippewas at 5-6. Whitney Houston topped the charts with “I Will Always Love You.”
Since then, the city of Mount Pleasant population has grown about 12 percent, and CMU’s total on-campus enrollment has grown by about 21 percent. Numerous apartments and houses were built throughout town to accommodate those new people, as have new commercial developments, particularly in Union Township and along South Mission and Pickard streets.
Lil’ Chef has been one of Mount Pleasant’s constants during all that change. Senior Alissa Barrett, a Mount Pleasant native, lamented the loss of the restaurant within an hour of its closing as she puffed away on a cigarette outside, facing the full parking lot covered by brown slush and salt-dirtied vehicles.
“I used to come here so regularly that I’d get my French toast and a waiter who worked here would just know to dump a mound of sugar on it, the way I liked it,” she said.
Barrett finished her meal with friends Sean Vanevery, a Harrison junior, and Graham Morrison, a Farmington senior. Vanevery and Morrison had just paid for their meals before they bolted back in to see if they could take a menu home with them. No luck. Turns out customers had been asking for them – or stealing them – all day.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a greasy spoon,” Morrison said. “But it’s a good greasy spoon. There are plenty of places to go get American food in Mount Pleasant. But none of them have the atmosphere Lil’ Chef does. None.”
Its atmosphere might best be described as homey, a place that reflected the down-to-earth style of its owner and the history and spirit of the town that embraced it.
Framed photos of CMU’s and Mount Pleasant’s past – from Warriner Hall just after its completion in the 1920s to photos of Gilded Age-era downtown – adorned the brick walls throughout the restaurant. An electric fireplace sat on the building’s west wall between two rows of booths. The “Action C” stamped on a CMU flag was propped from the coat rack next to the entrance across from the salad bar, above which Steele’s first dollar at Lil’ Chef was hung.
It had none of the huge plasma screen TVs, loud music or signature themes that characterize many of the new chain or franchise restaurants that have made their way to Mount Pleasant over the past 21 years. That was part of its charm.
“We’ve lost everything else, now we’re losing this? There isn’t a place like it left in town,” Barrett said.
She and her high school friends would frequently visit Lil’ Chef following their theater productions late at night, sometimes in groups as large as 40. She would visit Lil’ Chef frequently with her circle of friends throughout her college career, sometimes late at night for a good bite to eat.
“I haven’t been coming by as frequently lately, so I kind of feel guilty right now,” Barrett said, as the parking lot began to empty out for the first time all afternoon.
The future is unwritten
Money wasn’t a factor in deciding to sell the business, Steele said.
“My wife has some serious medical problems,” he said. “She needs my help. Driving out here all the time isn’t feasible anymore. I approached (LaBelle Management) in about August to discuss selling the property and we recently came to a deal.”
LaBelle, which owns six other restaurants and franchises in Mount Pleasant including Pixie, Italian Oven and Big Boy, announced Friday it bought the property along with the neighboring Antique Center. While the Antique Center will continue to operate through the remainder of its lease, it is unclear what will become of the Lil’ Chef property, Steele said.
“Maybe I’m glad I don’t know,” he said with a laugh.
Steele, who had previously owned other restaurants throughout the state, said he takes comfort in knowing the location remains in the local hands of LaBelle, but it is still difficult for him to say goodbye to the staff.
LaBelle was scheduled to hold a private job fair for the former employees of Lil’ Chef, but while getting a new job is a priority for the employees, losing the opportunity to work with their coworkers is something they cannot replace.
Winnie Ervin, a server and hostess who has worked at the restaurant since 2011, said the toughest part of her final day at work was saying goodbye to regular customers for the final time and leaving her coworkers on short notice.
“I just found out on Friday,” she said. “It was a shock. We’re all going to miss each other.”
That was clear as many employees sat around the corner booth after close, talking like a group of close friends sharing stories, telling jokes, smiling and laughing.
Even after closing time, Steele kept himself busy wiping down the booths, keeping his restaurant clean for its final day. As the salad bar was being emptied for the last time, the first dollar hanging over head, and his employees were enjoying themselves not too far away, Steele was struck by how different his life would be in the coming years.
“I’m going to wake up tomorrow morning for the first time and not know what to do,” he said. “It’s certainly going to be different, but it’s certainly for the best.”