Texas loses a landmark to COVID-19

After 83 years, downtown Huntsville’s Cafe Texan has been a destination for locals and travelers of the Lone Star State, as Texas’ oldest cafe to remain in the same location without ever closing – until now. 

“It’s a real tragedy that we had to close it down,” Cafe Texan owner John Strickland said. “When I closed up because of COVID-19, I had not intended to close it permanently.”

Strickland announced Cafe Texan’s permanent closure on the business’ Facebook page Wednesday morning. The news came as a shock to many.

The cafe owner had opted to remain closed for the majority of the past five months for the safety of his customer base, majorly consisting of senior citizens, and his staff. However, Strickland had every intent to open when the time was right.

Cafe Texan’s demise came quickly following an effort to save some money every month while the restaurant sat empty. It started with a request to have the city remove a dumpster that cost around $400 a month to have outside of the building. According to Strickland, he was told that he had to have the water turned off for the building in order to have the dumpster removed.

“When I turned the water off, they considered the place closed, and at that point it was not grandfathered, which meant that to open it back up, I was going to have to spend about $80,000 dollars on the kitchen,” Strickland said. With a kitchen built in 1913, it was far too small for the seating capacity, not meeting modern day codes for opening a restaurant.

Strickland had already spent close to $40,000 trying to keep his employees afloat for the past few months that the historic diner has been closed due to the coronavirus and difficulties with construction on 12th Street. A complete overhaul of the kitchen would have set his budget over the edge.

“It’s really sad because it's been a part of the community for 83 years,” Strickland said. “When I bought it in 1996, our greatest generation of WWII vets were in their 70’s, so I saw most of Huntsville’s greatest generation pass away. They had been in and out of the cafe all of their lives, because the cafe had been there all of their lives. It has been a pleasure knowing folks and most of them were vital parts of the community.”

The cafe has changed hands several times throughout its history, coming into his possession 20 years ago. During that time, Strickland has been able to enjoy the “melting pot of Huntsville,” as he called it, serving as a home to everyone from the common townsman to the movers and shakers helping mold the city.

“After I had bought it in early 2001 or 2002, a man had been (serving) in Iraq and was coming back home to Huntsville … At about 2 a.m., coming up Sam Houston Avenue, he saw that little red and blue Cafe Texan sign and he said, ‘I thought to myself, I’m home,’” Strickland remembered.

Strickland has sold the building to a buyer intending to turn the space into a downtown museum, with possibly a small sandwich and candy shop inside. Although Strickland would have preferred to see the historic cafe live on under different ownership, he’s pleased that the buyer has agreed that the iconic neon sign dating back to 1936 will remain as a beacon of home to the Huntsville community.