Nostalgia in a box: Bill Knapp's cakes offer a taste of Battle Creek history

·6 min read
A chocolate cake by Bill Knapp's LLC based in Saline purchased in Battle Creek, Michigan, where the restaurant chain of the same name started in 1948.
A chocolate cake by Bill Knapp's LLC based in Saline purchased in Battle Creek, Michigan, where the restaurant chain of the same name started in 1948.

It has been nearly 20 years since the last Bill Knapp's Restaurant closed.

But those looking to rekindle memories of the Battle Creek-based restaurant chain that had as many as 69 locations in the Midwest and Florida can still bring home a literal slice of the brand from one of its popular recipes.

The restaurant company filed for bankruptcy and closed its last remaining locations in 2002. Three years later, Marty Carrier acquired the rights to the Bill Knapp's name and recipes, putting the popular cakes in refrigerator isles at Meijer, Kroger and Family Fare grocery chains and back on the plates of the former restaurant's loyal customers.

"It was a huge hit right off the bat," Carrier said of the wholesale cakes. "I learned that people valued the Bill Knapp's name because Bill Knapp's made fantastic food in their restaurants. The restaurants were used as family gatherings all over the Midwest, so there was a very positive feeling towards Bill Knapp's."

Bill Knapp's LLC is headquartered in Saline and its cakes, donuts, iced bread and coffee are sold around the globe through its online store, billknapps.com.

In Battle Creek, what remains of the once-prosperous restaurant chain is the former commissary, now a storage facility on Knapp Drive, and memories of a business that is part of the city's DNA.

Who was Bill Knapp?

In this 1948 photo, Bill Knapp (center) shows his staff his culinary techniques.
In this 1948 photo, Bill Knapp (center) shows his staff his culinary techniques.

Clinton "Bill" Knapp, a traveling salesman from New York City, moved to Battle Creek in 1936. He had spent nearly a decade in the "Cereal City" working for Standard Brands Inc. and as a representative for Peter Pan Bakeries, when he and a group of investors decided to try their hand at the restaurant business.

Knapp and Dr. Cliff Brainard, Dr. Richard Stiefel, Wellington Burt and Keith Schroder formed Columbia Center Inc. The group, with Schroder as its president and Knapp as vice president and manager, opened their first restaurant in a colonial-style building in Battle Creek's Lakeview neighborhood on June 22, 1948.

The restaurant at 826 Capital Ave. S.W. had an open view of the kitchen and capacity for 70 patrons, although the parking lot was large enough to accommodate 100 vehicles. The menu specialized in steaks, chicken (with biscuits and waffles) and ham sandwiches.

Interior of Bill Knapp's restaurant, June 15, 1955.
Interior of Bill Knapp's restaurant, June 15, 1955.

"I always carried this dream of having a fine restaurant," Knapp said in a 1973 Enquirer interview. "I always thought it would be great to be able to serve people good wholesome meals. But all of this doesn't just happen. I couldn't swing it myself. But fortunately I had a good friend in Keith M. Schroder, who helped me get the show on the road."

The first-year sales at the location topped $125,000 — or $1.3 million in 2021 dollars when adjusted for inflation.

In 1950, the company built its second location at 34 W. Jackson St. in downtown Battle Creek and became a chain when it opened its Lansing location in 1955.

Over the ensuing decades, many more Bill Knapp's openings would follow, eclipsing $1 million in sales by 1971 and stretching beyond the Midwest into Florida by 1986. The menu also expanded to include favorites such as au gratin potatoes, chicken fricassee and bean soup.

Knapp retired as president in 1967. He died at his home in Battle Creek in 1974 at age 67 as he and his wife were preparing to leave for their winter home in Texas.

Food, family, memories

In this 1998 photo, the Tomilo family of Kalamazoo enjoys a meal at Bill Knapp's Restaurant in Battle Creek.
In this 1998 photo, the Tomilo family of Kalamazoo enjoys a meal at Bill Knapp's Restaurant in Battle Creek.

Given the restaurants didn't sell alcohol until it neared bankruptcy, Bill Knapp's was known as a family-friendly destination with food "made from scratch" at its three commissaries in Battle Creek, Vandalia, Ohio and Sanford, Fla.

Bill Knapp's restaurants became a common birthday destination thanks to the popularity of its chocolate cakes and a clever marketing promotion where the customer's bill was discounted the same percentage as their age. The cakes would be presented with music played through the restaurant's sound system for all of the restaurant customers to hear, with Bing Crosby crooning "Happy Birthday" or "The Anniversary Song."

In this 2002 photo, Andrea Mann lights a birthday cake for Margaret Quick at Bill Knapp's Restaurant in Battle Creek.
In this 2002 photo, Andrea Mann lights a birthday cake for Margaret Quick at Bill Knapp's Restaurant in Battle Creek.

On the rare occasion that a customer celebrated turning 101 years or older, the company issued checks paying the extra discount to them after their complimentary birthday meal.

There is no shortage of documented of memories from Bill Knapp's on social media, as a number of Facebook groups have sprung paying homage to the chain.

Eliot Rachman, an East Lansing native who now lives in Carlsbad, California, created the "I Remember Bill Knapp's" Facebook page in 2009 as a way to collect and share photos, recipes and memories of the eatery.

In this 1997 photo, Sandra Haney (left) and Alexys Haney of Holt dine at Bill Knapp's Restaurant in Lansing.
In this 1997 photo, Sandra Haney (left) and Alexys Haney of Holt dine at Bill Knapp's Restaurant in Lansing.

"My favorite photo to see is some kid from the 70s having his eighth birthday, because that was me, I did the same thing," Rachman said. "Just a good happy place. Food was always good and kids were always welcomed there. You had to be there with the Bing Crosby scratchy recording, cinnamon ice cream, waitresses in yellow dresses...

"People just really loved that place and have really good memories and everybody wishes it would come back."

Bill Knapp's 2?

In this photo from 2008, the Bill Knapp's restaurant on Capital Avenue SW in Battle Creek is knocked down to make way for a Panera Bread.
In this photo from 2008, the Bill Knapp's restaurant on Capital Avenue SW in Battle Creek is knocked down to make way for a Panera Bread.

In 1998, the privately-owned company was sold and the franchise underwent some dramatic changes, abandoning the commissary model while attempting to broaden demographics by adding beer and wine to the menu. There were updates to the interior and exterior décor under the marketing slogan, "That was then, this is WOW."

The moves away from the original business model, along with changing consumer tastes and increased competition from national chains such as Bob Evans and Cracker Barrel, likely led to the downfall of the restaurant. The last 29 locations closed by 2002.

Carrier said Bill Knapp's LLC owns the rights to all of the restaurant's recipes in addition to the name, and could conceivably open a Bill Knapp's restaurant — although it's more of a "never say never" attitude rather than a goal of the company.

"I've had discussions, one very serious round of discussions a couple years ago with people interested in tapping into that tradition and making use of those recipes; I would entertain it," Carrier said. "It would have to be an experienced restaurant person. Can't be somebody trying to start up... It would be a Bill Knapp's 2."

In the meantime, Bill Knapp's is expected to reopen its retail location in Saline to the public in the coming months after being closed due to the pandemic. And via online ordering or a local grocery chain, customers can still have the famed Bill Knapp's chocolate cake and eat it too.

"The chocolate cake is the absolute original Bill Knapp's chocolate cake recipe," Carrier said. "Hopefully it captures some nostalgic time in the past of a family gathering."

Contact reporter Nick Buckley at nbuckley@battlecreekenquirer.com or 269-966-0652. Follow him on Twitter:@NickJBuckley

This article originally appeared on Battle Creek Enquirer: Nostalgia in a box: Bill Knapp's cakes offer taste of Battle Creek history