By JONATHAN TILOVE
May 4, 2007
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
BATTLE CREEK, Mich. _ All day, Rita teeters on tears.
Rita is Rita DeVore, but here she’s just Rita _ who like her mother and father before her has devoted her life to Shrank’s Cafeteria. For 75 years, Shrank’s has been a humble shrine to the healing power of comfort food and lasting attachment, situated on Michigan Avenue in the settling stillness of Battle Creek’s downtown.
In a world of change and loss, Shrank’s has endured. Shrank’s has remained the same.
“Always, always,” says Rita, who started working the dish line when she was 10, “standing on top of a Coke carton, pulling dishes through the window.” Then bus girl and, when she was tall enough, the steam table, serving food, and then the cash register. For nearly 25 years, she’s owned Shrank’s. But, she says, “It feels exactly the same as when I was younger. It’s the same to me.”
Now, at 51, Rita is retiring. She and her husband, Steve, are leaving Shrank’s, leaving Battle Creek, leaving the United States. She wants to turn 52 in Costa Rica, a warm and peaceful place where a beer costs a buck and they can run a bed and breakfast or little inn. She’s ready _ or so she says.
“The rich are getting richer, the middle class aren’t going anywhere, and the poor are getting poorer.” She’s bothered by the “ugly war” in Iraq. And she’s tired of competitive consumerism, the monotonous landscape of malls and chain stores, the gluttony of all-you-can-eat buffets.
Michigan, of course, is deep in the doldrums. Things are not as bad in Battle Creek as some parts of the state, but that isn’t saying much. Just after the New Year, Kellogg’s Cereal CityUSA museum, which opened here in 1998 with hopes of becoming a downtown tourist lure, unceremoniously shuttered its doors. “Snap. Crackle. Flop,” read the Associated Press headline.
And Rita has sold Shrank’s, to a man named Schnorr. He’s got a first name (also Steve), but he’s already just Schnorr, sure as Rita is just Rita. For a few more weeks, she’ll be around for what Schnorr calls “Rita’s boot camp,” passing the way of the place to him and his wife, Becky. And that will be it.
Life is sad. It doesn’t last forever. It is lived a day at a time, one meal to the next. There is an Edward Hopper melancholy in the mellow light of the cafeteria line. But there is also grace in the sacrament of simple foods of fond memory _ of shepherd’s pie and beef stroganoff, of mashed potatoes and baked cabbage, of bread pudding and cherry pie. And who can deny the holy communion of macaroni and cheese as its creamy warmth soothes the soul, cell by cell?
“We like steady things, things that don’t change all the time,” says Herb Fuld, 84, a regular along with his wife of 61 years, Louise. “We like things that last. Therefore, we like Shrank’s. It’s a family affair. You keep seeing the same people. Rita is always here.”
But not for long.
Today is a public observance of the orderly transfer of power, an open house to say goodbye to the DeVores and hello to the Schnorrs. It’s a party. It’s a wake. It’s particularly busy at Shrank’s.
When Rita was born to Harold and Mary Flake _ the name perfect for CerealCity _ both worked for Roy Shrank, who founded the restaurant in 1932. In 1969, they bought the business, and remained partners, working side by side even after they divorced and Rita’s mother remarried, becoming Mary Bailey.
Rita left Battle Creek for a few years, marrying young, having a child, divorcing. She came home in 1983, buying her father’s share of the business for a dollar, though he stayed on as the breakfast cook. She started Shrank’s successful catering business.
“It wasn’t in the scheme of things for me to do with my life,” Rita says.
It’s just what happened.
Twenty years ago she married Steve, who had the Yellow Submarine sandwich shop in town, and which now, in a new incarnation, operates out of Shrank’s.
Over the years, Shrank’s has been as surely a civic space as City Hall. The Exchange Club gathers there each week. And the Optimists. It’s where governors hold their public meetings when they come to town.
And every morning, Bruce Phillips, a second-generation real-estate agent, gathers around a breakfast table with other regulars for gossip, that gentle Midwestern mix of one-upmanship and self-deprecation, and cornball humor. (“What is a Phillips screwdriver?” he asks. “Vodka and milk of magnesia.”) Someone who doesn’t show for a couple of days, Phillips says, is sure to get a check-in call.
The morning of the open house, the police chief is meeting with other community leaders to talk about the worrisome rise of violence in town.
On a Sunday night when she was 15, Rita answered the door at home and two armed, masked men barged in. Her father was up reading in bed. The men took the two of them over to Shrank’s, where her father opened the safe, which held a few thousand dollars.
Back at the house, the men tied them up in the basement and threw a sheet over them. “We didn’t think that we were going to live,” Rita says. But the men left. Rita freed herself and untied her father.
The two men were arrested, but the case against them was botched and they went free. A few years ago, Rita and Steve were at a Christmas party when Steve realized one of them was there, in another room. He got Rita out before she knew it.
After the robbery, Rita moved to nearby Marshall, where she was the high school homecoming queen. Ever since, Steve says, she’s been “the queen of everything.”
Before and after her workday at Shrank’s, she’s the group fitness manager at Gold’s Gym, leading classes in everything from cycling to yoga to weight-lifting and body combat. “It keeps me sane,” she says. She may have the best cardiovascular system in all Battle Creek, and it shows. As Bruce Phillips observes, “If you’re a man and you see Rita and you’re not extremely pleased, visually, you’re blind.”
Rita’s mother died Oct. 13, 1998, and even though they were divorced, her father couldn’t go on. He killed himself a few weeks later.
Casimer Dzwik, 68, a retired Post Cereal worker who has been eating at Shrank’s for 40 years, is eating there today. He was at both Rita’s parents’ funerals, but that is hardly surprising _ he’s gone to more than 2,000 since his 7-year-old son died in his arms after a car crash involving a deer. The son would have turned 40 March 30, and Dzwik, who has a round, open face that likes to smile, removes his glasses and dabs his eyes.
People packed the church for his boy’s service, many of them strangers. “I know how I felt to see all those faces,” Dzwik says, and so, in the years since, he has returned the kindness. Dzwik (the name, in Polish, means “to lift up”) has four other children, eight grandchildren, and triplet grandchildren on the way.
He is also in the habit of calling anyone he knows with a newborn on Christmas and singing them a customized version of Connie Francis’ 1961 classic, “Baby’s First Christmas.” Does he have a good voice? “No,” he says. “That’s what makes it so unique.”
Nearby, Dorothy Martich is recalling 58 years ago at Shrank’s, fighting to get a high chair for her baby, Douglas, now 60. And where is Douglas today? “He’s home,” Martich says. “We’ve still got him.”
Rita always made it clear to her daughter, Meredith Antoshevich (her father’s name), that she was not to follow in her footsteps at Shrank’s. Meredith now lives in Indiana, managing a cafe. She recently bought a house. She loves Indianapolis, but she’ll likely follow Rita and Steve to Costa Rica in due course.
“The umbilical cord is definitely not cut, sad to say at 25,” Meredith says.
At first she was dismayed when her mother told her she was selling Shrank’s. Now, she says, “it’s time for her to focus on herself, to figure out who Rita is, not Rita the restaurant owner.”
She adds, “It’s hard watching your customers die.”
Rita cries intermittently during the open house, but it is not until late in the day _ when she sits down between Virginia and Lawrence Jeffery, Ginny and Jeff, as they’re known, married 66 years _ that she dissolves into sobs.
“We’ve been coming here so many years, we’re a fixture,” Ginny says. “I thought we owned the place, but she never gave us any of the profits.”
Ginny’s having the bean soup and cornbread. “They have awful good liver and onions,” she urges, “if you like liver.”
Jeff ate lunch at Shrank’s every day when he worked at the Grand Trunk Railway, and they’ve continued to come in the 26 years since he retired, though less so of late, because it’s a bit of a drive and Jeff, Ginny explains, can barely see or hear at 88.
Seemingly out of nowhere, and with none of the fanfare that sometimes accompanies elderly flashes of wit, Jeff tells a reporter not to listen to his wife. “I’ve been disregarding her forever.”
Ginny disregards Jeff. She says she didn’t want to make Rita cry, and holds in her own tears.
“I told her I’m glad for her. She worked so many years. I told her old people don’t like change.
“I guess she knew that.”