1978 Was an important year in my life. That year, I transitioned from being a manager of a restaurant to an owner. For years, I had been traveling past the Leo Cafe from our home out on Bishop Road just north of Leo, Indiana. You see, I had been managing several restaurants in Fort Wayne, Indiana for the Azar’s Big Boy franchise for about 4 years.
I started out working for Azar’s in 1974 with no real prior experience as a restaurant manager. My only restaurant experience was that of being a busboy at a local steakhouse while in college. Before Azar’s Big Boy, I was working as an insurance salesman, and I found out that ‘insurance sales’ was not for me.
Looking for a job, I ended up going through a job recruiter. After a couple of interviews that went nowhere, I interviewed with a recruiter for Azar’s Big Boy restaurants located in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I told him of my education and about my limited restaurant experience. The interview went well, and I was hired by the Azar’s company. My first position was as night manager for the Northcrest location in Fort Wayne. Eventually, I was transferred to the location out on Taylor Street in town also as the night manager. Feeling comfortable in my position and now with my experience, I challenged the General Manager of the restaurant to sort of a contest. My proposal was that I could bring up my ‘night’ sales to the same level as the day business (breakfast and lunch) within a period of time. The Taylor Street location was in the Industrial section of town. There was not a whole lot of residences in the area that would lead to a lot of evening sales. Needless to say, with a lot of help and hard work by my ‘night’ crew, we successfully grew the ‘evening’ sales to a point greater than the ‘day’ portion of the business.
At that point, I was offered the General Manager position at the Waynedale, Indiana location. This location not only had inside dining, it also was a ‘drive up’ location where customers sat in their cars to order and eat their meals. After about a year of successful sales, I was promoted to the main location in front of Azar’s corporate offices on Coliseum Blvd. There, I became the Training Manager for new managers that joined the Azar’s family. By 1976, our family of four moved to the Leo, Indiana area. We built a new home out on Bishop Road near the Allen County line. In fact, if you traveled north on Bishop Road, you would be in De Kalb County. From the day we moved, I had to make a trip into Fort Wayne every day that I worked in the restaurants.
Over the years, I would drove through Leo and never stop in at the Leo Cafe. Then I visited the cafe in Leo on one of my days off in early May of 1978. Being the General Manager of a Big Boy restaurant, my working hours started about 5 am and sometimes lasted until after 3 or 4 in the afternoon. The Leo Cafe’s hours of operation were from 5 am to 2 pm daily and closed on Sunday.
The owner of the Leo Cafe was Howard Means. He and his family owned the cafe from about 1966. (It had been called Brownie’ Cafe previously). I visited several times before striking up a conversation with Mr. Means. He was a restaurateur who enjoyed visiting with his regular customers as well as new ones. The town of Leo, Indiana is considered a ‘Bedroom’ community by many. The customers of the Leo Cafe when I visited were mostly from the Leo/Grabill (Indiana) area. Some patrons worked in Fort Wayne, Grabill, or even Auburn, Indiana. Howard’s customers also included farmers and those who were retired.
I must say that I ended up visiting the cafe many times after that day in May. To be honest, I had many conversations with Mr. Means during those visits. I don’t remember when our conversations turned from casual ‘chit chat’ to that of Mr. Means wanting to retire from the day-to-day operation of the Leo Cafe. He stated that he was willing to sell the Cafe if I wanted to take on the task. After the initial shock wore off, I spent couple of weeks thinking about it as well as talking with others about the opportunity.
After much thought and discussions especially with my dad, I decided to take on the opportunity of owning my own restaurant. I felt that I had the knowledge and the stamina to run a successful business. After initial down payment of $5000.00, I became the owner of the Leo Cafe located in Leo, Indiana.
My first day of operating the Leo Cafe was on Monday October 2, 1978. Our sales that day were – $368.69 and our first week’s sales were $ 1988.11. By today’s standards that was very weak sales. (See the 1978 menu below). A cup of coffee sold for 25 cents. A full breakfast was $2.00 or less and lunches were $3.00 or less. At the beginning, our hours of operation remained 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. I retained the existing staff. Unfortunately, after 40 years, I don’t remember their names at this time.
I have pictures taken inside of the cafe during the first week of operation. Those in the photos are members of my family – my mother, brothers, sister, my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I think they were as excited about the new venture as I was. Operations were humming along well for the next year and a half. At some point in early 1979, I decided to change the hours operation from 5 a.m.to 2 p.m. to 5a.m. to 7 p.m. I was the opening manager/cook and dishwasher when we first opened under my direction. It wasn’t until Sunday September 13, 1981, that I started having Sunday hours of 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
I was lucky to have the same staff after taking over. I was able to take time away from the daily operations with the assistance of Phyliss Caywood. Phyliss would cook and watch over the restaurant during my absence. Besides Phyliss and her son, I also had Cindy, Craig, Clarissa, and Mark on my staff.
I started of 1979 thinking about remodeling the inside of the Leo Cafe. I felt that it was ‘dated’ and needed a new look. I began putting away money for the remodeling project. However, 1979 was not a good year for my family and myself. On July 10, 1979, I received a phone call from my mother in the middle of the night. My father had passed away from a massive heart attack. He was only 55 years old and about to retire by the end of the year from General Electric. Needless to say, I did not go into the cafe that day. Another date of note in 1979 was Sunday December 23rd. After church that day, I was taking my afternoon nap when I received a phone call from someone stating that the Leo Cafe was on fire. Yes! Two days before Christmas, my business was going up in flames. The building was old, and the heating unit was located on one of the side walls in the dining room. The unit used natural gas as a source of heat. The fire destroyed almost everything. The Grabill Fire department responded to the fire. Later someone from the department said that they thought that the temperatures were hot enough to melt everything. Needless to say, there was very little that was salvageable. I was left with the choice of walking away or trying to rebuild the cafe back. After several agonizing days, we made the decision to rebuild. I did not want to walk away from the disaster, leaving the remains for others to ‘clean up’. The salvage crews came in and cleaned up the interior all the way to the bare four walls.
We were closed from that day December 23, 1979, to April 9, 1980. Four months of intense reconstruction and restocking. Reopening date was April 10, 1980, and the opening time was 5 a.m. The Leo Cafe was now a newer and ‘modern’ looking restaurant. Everything inside was brand new. I felt that the new interior was more open and brighter. I included a salad bar to the dining room. Everyone was ready to get back to work and serve the community once again. After the reopening, I tried to include more ‘daily specials’ along with a ‘Friday Fish Fry’. A few weeks after the reopening, I started a night of music featuring local talent. It was well received by all.
In 1979, the International Harvester plant located in Fort Wayne, Indiana was going at full production. They had a peak employment at the plant of 10,000 employees. The union called for a strike at all of the International Harvester plants in the US. The strike started on November 1, 1979 and ended on April 10, 1980. It lasted a total of 172 days. They went back to work, however, layoffs soon followed. Everything was going well until around 1982. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “The economy entered 1982 in a severe recession and labor market conditions deteriorated throughout the year”. That year International Harvester announced that it was shutting down production at the Fort Wayne, Indiana plant. By 1983, there were about 3,300 workers at the plant. According to an article in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette dated June 29, 2017 — “At the time of the truck plant’s closing, only 3,300 were left, with 2,200 in the truck plant. Others remained in parts distribution and engineering departments.”
At the Leo Cafe, it became harder to make the same sales that we had in the previous years. As the year went on, sales continued to decline. Our regular guests were coming to the restaurant fewer and fewer visits during the week. Many had been employed at the truck plant. Each week, it seemed that our costs for food and supplies were going up. It became difficult to make ends meet by the end of each month. By the beginning of 1983, I asked Mr. Means if he would take over the Leo Cafe. In April of 1983, Howard Means started back to work at the Leo Cafe.
I continued on in restaurant management. By May of 1984, our family moved to Midland, Texas. After working in various restaurants in Midland and Lubbock, our family moved to Crossville, Tennessee in 1996. I started working for Cracker Barrel Old Country Store. We enjoyed being closer to family and friends in Indiana, however, Texas was calling us back. So, in 2002, we came back to Texas. (Fort Worth, Texas to be exact). I retired in 2009 after 36 years as a restaurant manager and loved every minute of it. Working for great companies and meeting great guests in all of the locations that I worked.
I am happy to say that the Leo Cafe is still going strong today. Over the years since 1983, there have been several different owners who have made the Leo Cafe their own.
Photos of the Leo Cafe prior to December 23, 1979
My brothers Kerry, Steve along with my Grandma Hayes and my Aunt Beverly Hayes – my wife Ruth and myself in the background
My Grandma Hayes along with Art Derrow
My Aunt Beverly Hayes and others
I am not sure of who are in the photo
My wife Ruth – Grandma Hayes – and Aunt Beverly Hayes
My wife Ruth with my Aunt Beverly Hayes
My Uncle Dick Miller and my Aunt Dorothy Miller
My cousin Rollen Miller
Menus From November 1978 to May 1979
Leo Cafe Suffers a Fire – States an article from the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, Indiana) dated December 24, 1979
Photos of the Leo Cafe after April 1980 – Photos taken by Kryder Photography Leo/Cedarville, IN
The New Menus after the Fire
Employee Name Tag
Newspaper Ad from Nov 10, 1981
Guest Check Front and Back
A Gift Certificate that was used as a promotional item
Measuring Spoon Set and paper clips used in various Promotions after April 1980
Promotional Measuring Spoons were given as a Christmas Promotional item one year
Page 60 of the October 5, 1982, issue of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana) celebrating Leo High School’s Homecoming.
You can find various menus used at the Leo Cafe by clicking this link – Leo Cafe Menus and Advertising
Newspaper articles written about the Leo Cafe
An article was written about the Leo Cafe in the November 5, 1985, issue of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana) on page 52.
The August 14, 1991 edition of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, on page 35, contained an article about the new owner of the Leo Cafe – Bob Hansen
This is a clipping from page 17 of the February 18, 2003 issue of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Indiana)
Photos of the Leo Cafe 34 years later in 2012
Photos of the Leo Cafe 40 years later. November 2018
The restaurant is still open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. The website for the Leo Cafe in Leo, Indiana is – Home | Leo Cafe (leocafein.com)
All photographs were taken by Alan Marvel unless otherwise noted