Whether it’s the gingham curtains, the vintage art hanging on the walls for sale, the green and white floral vines and matching walls or the small staff that remembers your name when you come in for Sunday brunch, there’s something special about Willie’s Family Restaurant.
Due to its lease ending, Willie’s, located at the corner of St. Joe Center Road and Maplecrest Road, announced it will be moving to another location, effective Monday, Sept. 27.
Willie’s has been around for nearly 55 years, having changed ownership a few times, but always serving food.
The restaurant will be closed for a week while they set up the new location and open up again on Oct. 4, 2021. The building is due to be demolished and replaced with a bank in the future.
The structure was built in 1919, according to owner Kim Campbell.
For Campbell, the history of the building is everything. She’s owned the building for the past 21 years, since her family moved to Fort Wayne and her husband bought the building.
Campbell is originally from Louisville, Kentucky.
“We were an operating partner for Papa John's; that’s what brought us here,” Campbell said.
Regulars who have been visiting the restaurant for a half-century see the move as a loss for the community.
For Decatur resident Stanley Votau, dining at the restaurant every few weeks for the last nine years is a routine.
“Food and service kept me coming back. The staff here work well as a team. They know your name, the omelets are good and the smoked sausage is good, when they have it,” he said.
He’s also a fan of the weekly fish fry and comes with family members, always ordering some sweet tea to go with his meal. The sweet tea is something he appreciates having, especially living in the north of the United States.
Since 1919, the building has had its myriad of uses, including a market/restaurant, gas station type stop, a movie theater of sorts and even a location where muscle cars were put together.
The National Oil Company used to own all the land, before they divided it up and sold the lot, according to Campbell.
At one point, the lot next door sold Christmas trees, and flowers during Mother’s Day, as well as other plants. That stopped two years ago approximately, Campbell said, right when they found out they would have to move.
While Campbell has searched for any historical mentions of Willie's, there aren’t many remaining to be found.
“The back of the building served as living quarters for families. It still includes a full bathroom. They used to put a sheet up and sell popcorn. They eventually added a dining room, where muscle cars were built,” Campbell said.
In fact, Campbell has had customers dine at the restaurant, including some who said they were raised in the building as children at one point or another.
For one regular, who moved to the area in 1958, the original Willie’s was around back when Reed Road was still unpaved and S.R. 37 was the only highway in the area. Interstates 469 and 69 still hadn’t been developed at the time.
It’s been a journey for Campbell and her family. The restaurant helped her as she raised her five children.
“I took it over in 2001. All my kids have worked here. Two still work here. My son runs the kitchen and my teenage daughter works here on weekends,” Campbell said.
She’s grateful for everything the restaurant has given her, allowing her to raise her children.
In her 21 years, Campbell grew the menu, offering new items, such as avocados and fresh in-house hash, barbecue chicken and beef and noodles.
“Our skillets are very popular. We just sell everything, fresher produce, in-house hash. We got a new fish — basa,” Campbell said.
Having carry-out and delivery also helped the restaurant stay afloat last year when COVID-19 was at its worst.
While Campbell is sad to let go of the building and its history, the memories made there will remain forever.
“It wasn’t supposed to go this way. We were supposed to be here 5-9 more years. We started two years ago looking for new property. We were going to relocate to the Mandarin, but that fell through,” Campbell said.
COVID-19 didn’t help anything either, but it did allow her to stay in the building another year longer than expected.
In fact, Willie’s was able to help Fort Wayne Community Schools with its youth meal program, serving approximately 1,350 meals overall in 2020.
“Our fish fry was wonderful, even after coming out of Lent. People would come pick up meals. Other businesses even made donations to help,” Campbell said.
Major factors in selecting the new location were cost and size.
“It’s going to be sad, but it’s exciting. It’s not as close as I’d like it to be, but it works,” Campbell said, of the former Chrome Plated Diner, at 3434 N. Anthony, where Willie's will move soon.
Campbell has made a few changes to the former Chrome Plated Diner. It’s been completely gutted and redone, she said.
“We did change the name to Willie’s Café. It’s going to have a real clean, fresh, modern farmhouse feel,” Campbell said.
A “community table” seating between 6-12 people has also been custom-made for the new location for its regulars.
“It’ll be for regulars to sit together, for single people to eat. One side has a bench, the other has chairs,” Campbell said.
Other positive changes include a larger kitchen, one that will give the kitchen staff the ability to prepare breakfast and lunch at the same time. The new location also has a slanted walk-up with a flat surface and no steps, in contrast to the current location.
“You’ll be able to get pancakes at 1 p.m. and french fries at 8 a.m. if you want,” Campbell said.
Some of her favorites include the omelets and the eggs Benedict, only available on special.
More storage space and parking will be available as well, but some things from the original building will move along with the staff; for example, the original Willie’s sign.
The goal is to eventually grow the staff and be open for dinner, Wednesday through Saturday. Many of the restaurant’s staff have been there long-term, some as long as 16 years.
When asked whether Campbell will be there when they demolish the building, she’s not sure, she said. She describes the building “like my kid.”