CEDAR RAPIDS — A place like Tommy’s Restaurant, which has 55 years of history in Cedar Rapids, is about more than the omelets or pancakes or tenderloins or pie on the menu. It’s about the memories customers have built up in decades of eating there.
That’s the approach new owner Steve Baker, 42, is bringing to the restaurant. He has plenty of memories there himself; he first started working at Tommy’s as a dishwasher in the early 1990s. Though he left to pursue other things, he couldn’t keep away; he returned to manage the business in 2015 before buying it from the former owner at the end of last year.
He decided he wanted to honor the long legacy of the restaurant and hired artist Casey Wullner to paint a mural, “Tommy’s Through the Years.” It features six owners of the restaurant from its history. The painting will be officially unveiled at 3 p.m. Feb. 29, with most of those owners present for customers to reminisce with them.
“I wanted to give back to everyone through the years that taught me and ultimately led me to this opportunity and this experience,” Baker said.
One face from the painting that will be missing from the gathering is founder Tom Haddy, who died in 2013. Haddy first opened Tommy’s Restaurant in 1965, off First Avenue in a spot that later would become Dairy Queen before it was destroyed by the 2008 flood. It then moved to 836 First Ave. NE, which now is Riley’s Cafe. In 1981, Larry McMann bought it, and he opened the current location, 393 Edgewood Rd. NW, in 1991. He sold the First Avenue location in 1994 to Bill and Linda Pochbradsky, who turned it into Willy Woodburns. McMann sold the Edgewood location to Doug and Shirley Thompson in 1995, and they sold it to Jim Ashley in 1996, and Ashley sold it to Baker.
Baker attributed the business’s longevity to the relationships built between staff and customers.
“We take pride in customer service. I think that’s a lot of what keeps Tommy’s going,” he said. “It might take the server five minutes to get back to your table, but that’s because everyone wants to talk to her. We thrive on regulars; we have people who will eat three meals a day here. We know them by name.”
In one corner of the dining room on a recent afternoon, a group of women played bridge. They come in once a month for soup and sandwiches and cards. Some members are in more than one bridge club that meets at the restaurant.
“The food is good, the service is good,” said Jean Kruse of Cedar Rapids. “They’re very welcoming.”
On the wall hang plaques from different groups who come in regularly.
“The community are the ones that give to this place and have kept it around,” Baker said.
Nostalgia also plays a part.
“We’ve got people my age who came here growing up, and now they meet their parents here because this is where their parents still go. And they bring their kids here now,” he said.
He’s made a few changes, trying to strike a balance between keeping longtime customers happy and bringing new customers in.
The menu has always been fill with classic Midwestern cooking, with staples like tenderloins and hot beef sandwiches and broasted chicken. Breakfast is served all day.
“It’s just a good, old fashioned, home cooked meal,” said Baker, who is often found in the kitchen, helping prepare the food.
He’s added items, like tacos and a fruit and nut salad that has proved popular with people coming over from the gym next door. He’s also testing out things aimed at younger families, like free meals for kids on Tuesday nights, when they also can do an art project, and monthly themed kid parties. Starting this weekend, he’s planning to stay open 24 hours Thursday to Saturday, hoping to attract third shifters.
“I’m trying to attract the 25 to 45 demographic to keep growing the business, but keep the classic menu everyone likes. It is a delicate balance,” he said.
Some things, he said, seem to be non-negotiable, like the lasagna, which has been on the menu for decades, or having thick, bound menus instead of thin paper ones. He tried to get rid of the heavier menus, but his regulars gave him such a hard time he brought them back after a few days.
After leaving Tommy’s in 1999, Baker went to trade school but found he missed the restaurant world. He went on to work at Perkins, where he helped open restaurants across North America. He became a trouble shooter, assessing struggling locations and getting them back on track.
When Ashley called and asked him to come back to Tommy’s, he said he couldn’t say no. His old boss was planning to retire and wanted to make sure the restaurant was left in good hands. The two had kept in touch over the years.
“I always cared about this place. It was my first job,” Baker said. “I learned a lot about restaurants here. Larry and Jim were my two biggest influences as far as what a restaurant manager should be.”
He wants to take Tommy’s into the new decade by expanding it. That company recently declared bankruptcy and shut locations nationwide. Baker already has arranged to take over a Perkins in Lakewood, Colo. He plans to reopen it as a Tommy’s Restaurant in April.
“I’m hoping for 10 locations in 10 years, across the country,” he said.
Maybe someday, people in other towns will talk about Tommy’s Restaurant with the same fondness his Cedar Rapids regulars do, he said.
Comments: (319) 398-8339; firstname.lastname@example.org
If You Go
• What: Tommy’s Restaurant
• Where: 393 Edgewood Rd. NW, Cedar Rapids
• Hours: 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, open 24 hours Thursday to Saturday
• Details: (319) 396-3045, tommyswest.com
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