End of an era: General Store Eatery to close in Valley Junction after 49 years
After 50 years the General Store Eatery in Valley Junction is closing Zach Boyden-Holmes, DesMoines
Looking around her cozy restaurant in West Des Moines' historic Valley Junction neighborhood, Teresa Brittain gets emotional.
She holds it together, but just barely.
After nearly 50 years of serving lunches, the General Store Eatery, 206 Fifth St., will close its doors in December.
"Things have changed," Brittain, 63, said. "Des Moines has way too many restaurants and the restaurant business has changed. It's harder to own and run a local business and make it."
She says she averaged around 100 customers a day when she bought the business in 2000. Today, she serves about 50 to 70 people each day — more than half of them are regulars.
"People tell me it's a place of comfort and it's homey," Brittain said. "People in here all know each other or run into each other after years. It's a family."
Much like the antique cash register used to ring up orders, the 80-seat General Store Eatery is a remnant of a bygone era when midday lunch counters and diners could be found in nearly any Iowa town.
Today, there are only six independently-owned lunch-only restaurants left in Iowa, said Jessica Dunker, president and CEO of the Iowa Restaurant Association.
Soon the number will be five.
The genesis of The General Store
Mark Veiock, newly graduated from Drake University, opened the General Store Eatery, then called the Valley Junction General Store, in 1970.
"I hate to see it go because it meant a lot to a lot of people," Veiock said. "It's been an institution, but with competition and everything, I am amazed that anything lasts 50 years anymore."
The restaurant still operates much like it did in those early days: The menu is heavy on deli sandwiches and homemade soups; the staff is friendly and the conversation is plentiful.
Veiock said he knew the customers by their order, even if he didn't remember their names.
He went on to own several other businesses in Valley Junction and was a founding member of the Historic Valley Junction Foundation, the local chamber group that promotes business in the historic downtown shopping district and organizes events like this month's Jingle in the Junction.
He still owns several properties in the area.
Mark Goodrich, the foundation's current president, said businesses like the General Store Eatery have made Valley Junction a one-of-a-kind neighborhood.
"The General Store was ... where many relationships were forged," he said. "It is sad to see a part of the Valley Junction community move on, but we wish Teresa and her staff the best of luck in their next chapter."
Betty Gordon, an employee, took over ownership of the restaurant in the late 1970s.
Brittain became a regular customer in the 1980s. When she dropped in for lunch one day in 1999, Gordon told her that she was preparing to call a broker to sell the business. Brittain, an Urbandale native, took over in February 2000.
"I loved it. I loved the decor and I loved everything about Valley Junction. It's like it was meant to be and I've had it ever since." Brittain said. "I wouldn't have started my own place. I wanted this place."
Gordon left behind all of the recipes for Brittain, including 50 original-recipe soups.
"All of her soups were homemade and we continued to do that," she said. "I am a big soup nut."
Brittain has not changed the menu much in 19 years. She's added a few new soups, like Monday's cheeseburger chowder, one of the eatery's more popular soups.
"And I am happy that she kept the place the way it was for so long because so many places change," Veiock said. "It's always nice to go to a place that you consider home, a place that never changes and is always predictable. People like that."
50 years come to a close
Robin Renda is the General Store Eatery's only employee. She and Brittain have been working together for about 10 years.
"We're a perfect team because I do all the soups and she loves to bake," Brittain said. "She's always trying new cookies and desserts. And she also makes the sandwiches as people come in to order."
Brittain's husband, Kim, pitches in by fixing whatever breaks and cleaning up from time to time.
"This place means as much to him as it does to me," Brittain said.
Both of her children worked in the restaurant. She's watched her customers' children grow up. Some have become regular customers in their own right.
"We've had a lot of parties in here with families, birthdays and graduations," she said.
The restaurant will remain open through Dec. 21.
Customers — new or old — can stop in for a sandwich or a bowl of soup until then and possibly walk away with a piece of the restaurant's history. All of the antiques, memorabilia, furniture and equipment is for sale.
Brittain, who lives in Beaverdale, said she plans to mull over ideas for her next venture over the winter. One idea she's considering is a cookbook featuring the recipes from the General Store Eatery.
"I've decided that if I can't make them for everyone, I will share them," Brittain said.
One unique customer
The General Store Eatery boasts a crew of regular customers, so when someone new walks through the door it might turn a head or two, especially when that customer is a famous rock star.
"Alice Cooper was here for lunch when he was in town for a concert," Brittain recalled her brush with fame. "It was crazy. When you see Alice Cooper walk in the door, it's like, 'Oh, my God. It's Alice Cooper.'"
Brittain said the musician known for his horror-movie themed stage shows, complete with props and fake blood, had been visiting the Theatrical Shop when he stopped in the restaurant.
The General Store Eatery
Location: 206 Fifth St., West Des Moines
Hours: Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; closed Sundays
Contact: 515-279-6828; Facebook