In a recent chat with a longtime Ann Arborite, the conversation wandered to the subject of favorite restaurants, then narrowed to reflections on now-defunct eateries whose passing left a gap in a city known for gastronomic choices. With a wistful look in her eyes, my acquaintance checked off several familiar names–the Whiffletree, Drake’s Sandwich Shop, the Pretzel Bell, Bimbo’s. After a pause, she added, “and I really miss Bill Knapp’s.”
I smiled and thought here it is again–someone lamenting a fairly unremarkable restaurant chain in the same breath as several unique and independent Ann Arbor restaurant legends. Immediately the trademark phrases A Snack or a Meal and Good Things to Eat came to mind, and I replied “ah…yes…I miss it too.”
Taking my cue, she started listing her favorite dishes: “Au Gratin Potatoes…Bean Soup…the Glorified Steakburger…Chicken and Biscuits…Hot Fudge Cake Deluxe.” I listened and chimed in with an item here and there to keep the memories flowing. After all, I know this subject well, having spent twelve of my teen and early adult years working for the Michigan-born, Midwest-bred family restaurants.
Launched in 1948 in Battle Creek by partners Clinton B. Knapp and Keith Schroder, the chain reached Ann Arbor in the early days of its expansion, building at the corner of Jackson and Maple in the Westgate Shopping Center. That was followed in later years by a unit at Washtenaw and Carpenter (called Ypsilanti), and finally a third at I-94 and State Street, during the explosion in growth of the Briarwood area in the 1970s.
Like all Knapp’s, they were bright white brick buildings with dark green shutters, a cupola on the roof, well-kept flower boxes, and colonial-style double doors. Smiling waitresses, wearing crisp yellow-and-white-trimmed nylon uniforms and freshly polished white nursing shoes, delivered Midwest-style comfort food, on white and green ceramic plates or brown plastic baskets lined with wax paper. Nothing fancy, but people loved it–many regular customers would come in two or three times each day.
The Jackson Road location, where I landed my first job as a sixteen-year-old busboy, was among the busiest in the chain. Management preached the mantra of superior service in a warm and wholesome atmosphere, and we employees jumped on the bandwagon. Busboys honed their hand-eye coordination for quickness in clearing tables, facing off in impromptu contests. Hostesses swooped in, prepping tables and seating new customers, especially when the heat was on during a busy rush hour. Cooks pulled together to keep the food flowing through an open kitchen–a rarity at that time–and waitresses whisked it to the tables.
“Knappers” played hard too. In my first week as a busboy, I was stacking coffee cups in the front of the restaurant before opening when I heard a shout of “stop that fish!” Turning to look down the hallway, I spied “Chuckie” the prep cook, his arm whipping forward, and a freshly breaded piece of ocean perch hurtling through the air at my head. I ducked, the fish slammed into the far wall with a loud slap, and a mushroom cloud of breading filled the air along with the echoes of Chuckie’s hysterical laugh.
We had a long line at the door most evenings and quite often during lunch hours. But the wait was never excessive, and the food, friendly staff, and tradition fostered warm memories. Many of today’s adults can remember as a child receiving a formal white-and-green birthday invitation in the mail just before that special day, reminding them that a free cake awaited them upon their next visit. And older customers always enjoyed the “Old Timers Birthday Club,” which offered a percentage off the check equal to their age.
I left the company in the mid-1980s, having attained the level of district supervisor over several restaurants. During the 1990s I had the strange experience of watching it slowly erode, but entirely from the perspective of a customer. Ask a sampling of former loyal patrons about Knapp’s demise, and you will get replies ranging from diminishing service to lowered food quality to a menu that meandered in the wrong direction to a last-gasp, bizarre turn in building decor that was a turn-off to older customers and failed to capture younger ones. The company began closing and selling off underperforming locations, and eventually, on an August day in 2002, employees showing up for their morning set-up were met with a closure letter from management taped above padlocked doors.
The Briarwood restaurant had already been sold and bulldozed to make room for the Comfort Inn that sits there today. The Carpenter Road location, garnished with onion domes and other Middle Eastern touches, is now Palm Palace. The Jackson Road building became Zingerman’s Roadhouse, its original “T” shape redefined by a garland-festooned outdoor seating area and a silver trailer camped in the parking lot. Other remnants of the company are hard to come by, but the recipes for a few menu items float on the Internet, and a couple for baked goods (including the famous chocolate cakes) were sold to bakeries in the company’s liquidation and have appeared in a handful of grocery stores, including Hiller’s.
I still often run into both former employees and die-hard former customers, and they almost invariably shake their heads and say what a shame it is that Bill Knapp’s is gone. Often they’ll add that no place else has ever matched its combination of inexpensive, classic, quality food and prompt, friendly service offered in a setting of pure Americana.
Biased and nostalgic? Perhaps, but I always find myself nodding in agreement. I feel the Knapp Gap too.