News and Tribune

March 2012 tornado coverage

April 2, 2012

The Little Chef that could: A New Albany institution gets another chance, along with the family that now owns it

NEW ALBANY — Oddly enough, the tornadoes on March 2 and the blast-from-the-past diner on the corner of Market and Bank streets in New Albany have something in common with its new ownership — new opportunities.

Little Chef, the 1957 prefabricated restaurant, closed at the end of 2011. David Scott, the owner of Antiques Attic next door, purchased the building in February and leased it to his brother, Mike, to restore it and open it again as a hot dog and ice cream stop.

But Mike and his wife, Connie, lost everything when the tornadoes hit their home in Borden. But Connie said losing their home actually opened a door for them in some ways.

“Miracles just keep happening,” Connie said. “I wish I knew how to put how I felt after the tornado, it was all just so overwhelming. But a lot of the bad just ended up so positive.”

Loss and second chances

David has owned the land Little Chef sits on since 2008, but not the building. Since about 1960, the manufactured diner has switched hands several times.

But Mike said he kept his eye on the property, telling his brother he’d be interested in it should it become available.

“It seems like that part of town is coming back alive where it’s been dead so many years,” Mike said.

He said posters and flyers with lists of things people would like to see downtown were placed in the windows of vacant buildings downtown. Some of those lists included hot dog and ice cream shops, which made him think the Little Chef would be the perfect spot for both kinds of fare in one restaurant.

David purchased the building from former owner Diane Miller in February. From there, he and his brother agreed on a lease to restore and reopen the restaurant.

“He always wanted it and I thought I’d just as soon lease it to him,” David said. “I think something like his idea would do real good downtown.”

Mike said he wants to sell soft serve and scooped ice cream along with hot dogs and sausages served up all sorts of ways in a place he wants to call Updog’s.

He said instead of offering several kinds of foods, he wants to focus on a couple of menu items, offer all kinds of ways to eat them and do it right.

“We’re really just going to try to mess with it, see what works and see what doesn’t work,” Mike said. “You just wouldn’t believe how many people stop and ask, ‘Oh! When’s it going to open?’ It seems like hundreds a day.”

He said the reception has been somewhat mixed. Some passersby tell him they love the idea, whereas others say they want the restaurant back the way it was — open 24 hours and serving breakfast, lunch and dinner all day long.

But Connie said the way she and Mike are approaching Little Chef fits with what the prefabricator — Valentine Manufacturing, Inc. — had in mind for its diners.

“It’s really not a change because it’s the idea of the owner selling whatever they want to sell,” Connie said.

Mike said looking into fixing the roof, windows, cleaning out dirt from years of smoke and figuring paint schemes, turned out to be a lot more work than he expected. But he said that was nothing compared to the loss he and Connie Suffered just a month after his brother bought the diner.

After the tornadoes claimed their home, two barns and two cars, Connie said their focus turned away from reopening the restaurant.

“It didn’t really put a damper on it, but it made it less of a priority,” Connie said. “We’re kind of moving in all different directions right now. It’s not the stuff you lost, but you feel lost.”

David said he wasn’t worried about Little Chef at that point. He just wanted to make sure his brother and sister-in-law were OK.

“As soon as the tornado warnings were over, me and [some family] got in four different vehicles and headed that way,” David said. “It took us four hours to get there.”

But Mike said the help from volunteers and support from friends, family and neighbors has helped him and his wife feel optimistic about moving forward with their new business and moving out of Borden.

“I can’t really say I lost faith in people because I never really have, but it just reassures you that there are people who care,” Mike said. “It’s not just all the crying and stuff, but people you don’t even know coming up and asking us while we were at home if they can help. That really gets to you and makes you think about things, that this place might not be so bad after all.”

Connie said they don’t have plans to rebuild their home in Borden. Actually, she said in some ways, the tornado did them a favor.

She said they tried to sell their house for a couple of years without any luck with intentions to move to New Albany. She said it was closer to their regular jobs as well as David.

With insurance money on the way, she said this makes it easier to move. Even though that wasn’t the plan, she said she wasn’t sure she’d want to go back to Borden.

“The scenery will be different and I’ll miss the view, but maybe not so much like it is now,” Connie said. “My neighbor’s house is fine, but she has to look at the damage every day now. I think it’s very difficult for her.”

David said it’s strange how the situation played out, but he’s glad to have more family closer to him.

“I’ve always been close to [Mike], his wife and his two daughters,” David said. “I used to pick them up from school, so this has worked out real well. I’m glad I’ve got some family living next door now because I’ve got someone nearby who can take care of me if I need it.”

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