December 25, 2008

Keith’s Cafe Bids Farewell after Nearly 60 Years in Business

When does it make sense for a newspaper to report an upcoming event, after said occurrence is already complete? Well, when that news is about arguably the most popular restaurant in town serving its final meal. Keith’s Cafe can only hold so many customers at one time, and by now most of the diehard fans already were aware the Keith Family was calling it quits on December 22nd after nearly 60 years in the restaurant business.

Word began circulating around town in early December that the restaurant’s established holiday closing might in fact be its last. For years, regulars at the diner had been making the traditional December pilgrimages to Keith’s to get one last steak, tenderloin or cheeseburger to hold them over until February when Everett, Zelda, Junior and the crew returned to start the new year.

When the news hit that Zelda and Junior had decided 2008 would be their final year, the desperation of those normal December visits grew tenfold, as customers now were not simply seeking one last taste to hold them over until next year, but now and forever.

“Several of the regulars told us they were just going to be here every day, from here on out,” said Zelda Keith. “We have had a lot of customers making one last trip for old times sake.”

For years the restaurant has been closing on December 22nd as the Keith’s hit the road to travel and visit family. Customers would be waiting in line for the cafe to reopen on February 1st every year.

This will be the first year that Everett isn’t there to bid the regulars farewell. He lost his battle with cancer this spring. But the family pressed on, enlisting the aid of Junior’s fiancee’ Scarlet Hamilton in the kitchen.

But after finishing out the emotional year without Everett, the rest of the family has decided, in 2009 Keith’s will not be reopening. The family is confident the business will be sold, but when the restaurant reopens, it will not be Keith’s Cafe.

“For years people have come through that door and there has been a Keith here,” Zelda said. “That will end on Monday, and so will the name.”

It is a name that has been in the making since April of 1949. Everett Keith opened the restaurant shortly after returning from serving in the United States Navy during World War II. It first opened on the south side of Highway 136 near the Highway 15 junction in Memphis. In addition to the restaurant, Everett also ran the filling station at that site.

Everett and Zelda built the present café in 1951, adjacent to their home on ground that had served as his mother’s garden spot.

Over the next 50 plus years, customers flocked from all over the tri-state area to enjoy the family’s hand-cut steaks and generous helpings of homemade French fries. After nearly 60 years, Zelda still arrives early each morning to cut the cabbage to make the cafe’s famous coleslaw.

That all ended December 22nd. She says she doesn’t have any major plans for retirement.

“I like to sew, so I’m sure I’ll do plenty of that. I’ll travel to see the kids and the grandkids more,” said Zelda. “Everett and I had a passion for antiques, so who knows, maybe I’ll get back into that.”

As if it needed more than its fabulous food to make a name for itself, Keith’s became synonymous with Memphis for many out of town visitors for its sizable servings as well as unique decorations.

“You’re from Memphis? Isn’t that the place with the café with all of the coffee mugs hanging from the ceiling that serves the steaks so big they hang off the plates?”

So many tourists found their way to Memphis for one of those fabled T-bones and a chance to hear a little history from Everett regarding his interesting interior design choice.

“Everett just really liked the mugs,” Zelda said. “He would pick them up at different places where we traveled, and eventually people started bringing them in to us.”

Now there are more than 5,000 coffee mugs displayed at the café, something that will not change when the business is sold.

“They are a part of this place now,” Zelda said. “We are going to leave them here. So many people have a favorite, or look for the ones that they have given to Everett and me, I think it will be nice for them to be able to keep doing that for years to come.”

Over the past 60 years the Keiths and their coffee mugs have carved out a niche in Memphis history that will live on for generations.

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