The Short Life of the Royal Cafe
Author: Grace Shackman
Guy Bissell and the early years of Ann Arbor's restaurant trade
Between 1905 and 1909, the number of restaurants in Ann Arbor doubled--all the way from eight to seventeen. One of the newcomers was the Royal Cafe, opened in 1909 by Guy Bissell at 316 South Main.
Restaurants weren't a big deal early in the century. "People didn't go to restaurants like they do now," recalls Elsa Goetz Ordway, whose family owned the Goetz Meat Market on Liberty. "As a child I can't remember ever going to a restaurant." Bertha Welker, who was a teenager growing up on Sixth Street when the Royal Cafe opened, never went to a restaurant as a young woman, either. Frieda Heusel Saxon, whose family owned the City Bakery on Huron, remembers that they might run out for a quick bite at lunch, but they didn't eat in restaurants for enjoyment.
In 1909, saloons still far outnumbered restaurants in the city. (There were thirty-seven in 1909.) But they were mainly men's hangouts. Families who wanted to socialize around eating entertained at home or, as a special treat, went out to an ice cream parlor. Ordway remembers that the favorite spots for Sunday afternoon ice cream treats were Trubey's and Preketes's, both on South Main.
The Royal Cafe wasn't intended for the sweet tooth or the drinking crowds. Despite its fancy name, it was what Guy Bissell's daughter, Eleanor Gardner, describes as a "casual restaurant," with a quick-service counter, a few wooden tables, and a simple menu. The bill of fare offered nothing stronger than coffee (five cents), and the only sweet item was griddle cakes (ten cents).
Bissell ran the restaurant himself, doing the cooking with the help of his father, Ira, whenever he was in town. (He divided his time among his three children.) Bissell's wife, Marie, stayed at home with their small children, Eleanor and Clarence, and also cared for her mother, Frederica Bernhardt.
Bissell was just twenty-six when he opened the Royal Cafe. He was born in Ludington, Michigan, the son of an English father and a German mother, and raised in Ypsilanti. He left school after the eighth grade and moved to Ann Arbor when he was eighteen. He worked as a bellboy at the American Hotel (now the Earle Building) where he also slept, and held short-term jobs, including positions as a laboratory technician and a clerk at Overbeck's Book Store. He and Marie Bernhardt were married in 1904.
Bissell's only professional cooking experience before opening his own restaurant was a short stint as a baker for Bigalke and Reule, grocers and bakers, at 215 E. Washington. Gardner says her father learned cooking from his mother, who taught him German specialties.
When the Royal Cafe opened, most of the city's restaurants were on campus or clustered around the courthouse. For a time, it was the only eating place on Main Street other than the tearoom at Mack and Company, Ann Arbor's big department store, at the corner of Main and Liberty. Workers at nearby businesses were probably the nucleus of its customers. The biggest business in the vicinity was the Crescent Works Corset Manufacturers (where Kline's department store is now); others on the block included meat and grocery stores, dry goods and millinery shops, a plumber, a hardware store, an ice company, and an undertaker.
One year after the Royal Cafe opened, five more restaurants were listed in the city directory. The cycle of growth continued, and by 1911 there were twenty-five. That year, the Royal Cafe moved across the street to 331. A year later, Bissell moved it across town to 609 Church Street to serve the college crowd.
The frequent moves were typical of the period. Restaurants had a fast turnover rate and rarely lasted long enough to pass down to the next generation. (The longest-lasting of the 1909 restaurants was Preketes's, later named the Sugar Bowl.) After two years on Church Street, Bissell was bought out by the university. He never again ran a restaurant.
By then the city had twenty-seven restaurants. Eleanor Gardner says her father quit because "the restaurant business got too big for him." It's hard to imagine what he would think of the city today, when the Observer City Guide lists more than 200 restaurants, half a dozen of them in the 300 block of South Main. The original Royal Cafe is not one of them; it's now part of Fiegel's Men's and Boys' Wear.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: Gardner was born the year the Royal Cafe opened, and has no firsthand memory of it. But this old interior photo reveals that the menu was heavy on protein: steak, bacon, pork chops, salmon, and sardines. It offered no fruit and only one vegetable: baked beans. Prices ranged from five cents for drinks, to five and ten cents for sandwiches, to fifteen to forty cents for dinners, which included coffee, potatoes, and bread and butter.