The Elite Cafe building on Waco’s traffic circle already is attracting attention from potential users, though owner Creed Ford III has not yet established a price for the 8,356-square-foot structure that went vacant in early February with the closing of the historic dining establishment.

“Yes, we are getting inquiries, quite a few of them,” Ford said. “Some envision reopening it as The Elite, while some have other ideas.”

Ford, whose Austin-based restaurant group acquired The Elite in 1999, said he is gathering information on what he should ask for the building that housed a restaurant that can trace its founding back almost 97 years.

He closed The Elite abruptly Feb. 4, citing sagging sales that had become chronic the past couple of years.

For decades, the restaurant’s marquee proclaimed it “where the elite meet to eat,” though it had evolved into more of a blue-collar haven that served steaks, salads and burgers. It became a traditional stopping point for those traveling between Dallas and Austin before Interstate 35 was built nearby.

Perhaps ironically, the Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation is widening the interstate to four lanes both ways between North and South Loop 340, causing several businesses to relocate, including the old Heitmiller’s Steakhouse in Elm Mott that moved to Lake Shore Drive and I-35.

But TxDOT spokeswoman Jodi Wheatley said schematics for the project show it will not affect The Elite Cafe, whose address is 2132 S. Valley Mills Drive, though it fronts the traffic circle that circulates traffic arriving from LaSalle Avenue and U.S. Highway 77 from south of Waco.

The McLennan County Appraisal District has appraised The Elite Cafe, which has undergone a series of renovations through the years, at $1.64 million for tax purposes.

Ford, whose company also owns Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q on the traffic circle and Johnny Carino’s Italian restaurant at 1412 N. Valley Mills Drive, said he would prefer the buyer of his building keep The Elite name because of its historical significance, but added he could not necessarily control that decision.

A historical marker bestowed by the Texas Historical Commission is posted outside the building, meaning the THC would have input on remodeling or expansion projects.

“Any alterations or exterior work would require a review by the commission, even if a new owner had no intention of preserving the historic look of the building,” said Michael Robb, a project reviewer for the commission. “No matter what, there would be a consultation process.”

He said renovation plans would have to be submitted to the commission at least 60 days before work was scheduled to start.

“If the plans include considerable additions or loss of historical integrity, we can request another 30 days to come to some kind of solution,” Robb said. Adding modifications can be so extensive that a building loses its historic designation, “but we would like to think that is unlikely,” he said.

Pat Farrar, a local real estate agent who specializes in commercial properties, said The Elite Cafe occupies a desirable location.

“But the deciding factor in its attractiveness to a buyer is the asking price,” Farrar said. “If they ask $4.2 million like the owners of Twin Peaks, it may take awhile.”

The owners of the Twin Peaks building at Central Texas Marketplace, the scene of a deadly May 17 shootout involving rival motorcycle gangs and law enforcement, originally were asking $4.2 million for the structure.

Real estate agent Bunny McLeod, who primarily lists properties in Dallas and Houston for Wulfe & Co., recently secured the listing and said that is not the sales price she is quoting to prospects, though she declined to give a specific figure.

She said in a phone interview last week she has received several inquiries from prospects and has visited Waco to show the building to prospective users.

Farrar said The Elite Cafe’s proximity to I-35 is a plus “because it is a hot growth path right now.”

He said it is surrounded by other eateries doing well, including Rudy’s Country Store and Bar-B-Q, the Health Camp hamburger joint and Trujillo’s Comedor & Cantina.

Possible drawbacks include the building’s age and the fact it does not have highway frontage, Farrar said.

Not far away, at Valley Mills Drive and Bagby Avenue, Dallas-based Leon Capital Group demolished the former University High School campus and has placed there a 42,000-square-foot Gander Mountain outdoors store, as well as a Starbucks, Zoe’s Kitchen, Potbelly Sandwiches and Bubba’s 33.

“If the price is right, somebody definitely will be interested,” said Kyle Citrano, managing partner of the George’s Restaurant & Bar on Hewitt Drive and president of the Waco Restaurant Association.

He added, “It’s a great building at a great location, though it could use some updating.”

Citrano said a prospect may prove willing to buy The Elite name from Ford, but he does not necessarily think keeping it is the building’s key to success.

“We’ve all seen restaurants change and move, and different ownership may have a different management style,” he said. “It might be time for a change, time for something different to go in there. You can always have nostalgia, but maybe The Elite has run its course.”

Commercial agent Josh Carter said The Elite Cafe’s history and the fact it already is outfitted for a restaurant will serve it well during the sales process.

“You see the success of Rudy’s next door, the Health Camp and restaurants up and down I-35, and you would think this place would be going gangbusters,” he said. “It would be hard for me to visualize it not being a success in the right hands; certainly the real estate itself and the location are fine.”

Commercial agent Jim Peevey is not marketing the building, but said he already has received inquiries from out-of-state prospects who routinely call him.

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