The prices at Allen’s Bristol Street Cafe aren’t quite as low as they were when the restaurant opened in 1990, but they aren’t a lot higher.
Nearly every lunch special is less than $6. The most expensive items on the breakfast menu are the $6.50 omelets.
For 25 years, Neal Allen and his family have been serving inexpensive breakfast and lunch and continue to draw a crowd.
“Good food. Good service. At a good price,” Allen said of his philosophy.
He started the restaurant with his parents, Jean and Jim. They’d been in the restaurant business 25 years already and had owned J & H on the Curve farther west on Bristol Street from 1964 to 1985. From 1985 to 1988, they had River Inn in Bristol.
In 1990, they purchased a former Hardee’s that had been converted to a Mandy’s Famous Chicken location. Two and a half decades later, people still ask about Mandy’s, Neal said.
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They might have something to do with his clientele. Many of them are older, longtime Elkhart residents. Some of his current customers have been there since the beginning of the cafe.
Some are even there for breakfast and lunch nearly every day.
Like many diners or cafes, there’s a community table that has a rotation of folks who gather to solve the community’s problems, the world’s problems, starting around 7 a.m. and continuing until after lunch.
“Our clientele is how we make it,” Allen said, noting more than half of his customers are senior citizens.
Some of the waitresses have been there for more than two decades. None of them have been there less than five years, Allen said.
There’s bottomless coffee for $1.40. They deliver homestyle food: meatloaf on Mondays, scalloped potatoes and ham on Tuesdays, creamed chicken and biscuits on Wednesdays.
Allen said he has most of the American breakfasts or dinners you can make for less than $6 on the menu. When customers suggest new ones, he tells them if he can make it for less than $6 and make a profit, he’ll give it a shot.
The restaurant is clean and often full. On weekends, business is strong. Four years ago, Allen’s opened on Sundays and that’s helped.
“It’s a big day,” he said.
This little restaurant serves more than 1,000 eggs and uses about 40 pounds of coffee every week. About 600 pounds of potatoes a week become a side at breakfast or lunch.
“We boil them, we peel them, we slice them, we fry them,” Allen said.
The restaurant makes its own soups and serves good, basic food. It’s not fancy, but it’s good.
“For a little restaurant, we do pretty well,” said Allen.
The 25 years has gone by “in a blink,” he said. His parents still come by. His son, Tyler, has been working in the restaurant the last five years. As often happens with the next generation in a family business, he has new ideas.
He didn’t want to work in a factory. His family’s business has a following, he said. So he’s there grilling and mopping and helping his father.
“It’s not easy working with family,” Neal said. “At the end, we’re all here for the same reason: to serve the people and try to make a living.”
Neal, who worked with his parents as a young man and became an owner with them at 22, said, “I couldn’t have picked a better business to be in.”
He enjoys getting up at 4 a.m. to be grilling food by 5:30. He enjoys interacting with the customers and making them happy. “Hopefully it keeps going,” he said.
Every city and town needs good lunch and breakfast spots where customers gather to banter and eat. Allen’s Bristol Street Cafe isn’t the only one, but it’s one of the good ones.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.