The Elite Cafe, which can trace its founding back almost 97 years, abruptly closed this week. After decades as a dining tradition downtown and then on Waco’s bustling traffic circle, owner Creed Ford III said competition from new restaurants and a bleeding bottom line forced him to shutter the landmark.
For decades the restaurant’s marquee proclaimed it “where the elite meet to eat,” and that included entertainer Elvis Presley, who reportedly visited the restaurant while in basic training at Fort Hood in the late 1950s. It served steaks, burgers and salads during most of its time operating in South Waco, where it anchored the circle and became a popular stopping point for travelers between Austin and Dallas even before Interstate 35 was built nearby.
Ford, whose Austin-based restaurant group acquired The Elite in 1999, said he made the difficult decision to close The Elite for economic reasons, following months, even years, of subpar sales and customer counts made worse by a recent influx of new dining establishments.
Shortly after Ford bought the restaurant, it was closed for about a year for extensive remodeling.
“Our No. 1 goal was to make it profitable, and that became more of a struggle,” Ford said. “This was not a move made in haste but after a lot of thought.”
He has put the Elite brand and the building up for sale, though he said he has not yet determined a price.
Ford and the food-related businesses he and his family own and operate also control the Carino’s restaurant at 1411 N. Valley Mills Drive and Rudy’s Country Store & Bar-B-Q, 2510 Circle Road, next door to The Elite. As is usually the case, the Rudy’s parking lot was packed during the lunch hour Thursday.
The local chapter of Business Network International has been meeting weekly at The Elite, and it had a gathering planned there Thursday. A letter on the door signed by Ford announcing the closing of the restaurant forced secretary-treasurer Jan Thomas to pursue an alternative.
She placed her own message on the front door, instructing BNI members to meet instead at the Trujillo’s Mexican restaurant on LaSalle Avenue.
“It’s a shame,” Thomas said. “It’s a landmark where a lot of Baylor students ate and which was a significant part of Waco’s history.”
Thomas said at previous meetings she hadn’t seen anything to indicate the establishment was about to fold.
Chad Conine, who operates restaurant review site wacofork.com, visited The Elite after hearing it had quit serving.
“I was here during happy hour Tuesday night. I heard nothing about it closing, but it was not busy at all,” Conine said. “That was an indication, I guess.”
A woman who identified herself as the owner of Restaurant Equipment Service Company but would not give her name stared intently at the letter Ford posted.
“I guess that’s why they weren’t answering their phone,” she said, holding a bill for nearly $1,500 in services she had hoped to deliver.
She said The Elite was a good customer, “and I never really had any issues with them. I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop this by. They were a little late.”
Local restaurateur Sammy Citrano, who now owns the popular George’s Restaurant, Bar & Catering on Speight Avenue, moved to Waco in 1986 to manage The Elite for the late David Tinsley, who spent about $1.7 million to completely remodel the restaurant, “which was a lot of money back then,” Citrano said.
‘Special place in my heart’
“I drove by there this morning,” Citrano said. “I moved here 30 years ago, and it has a special place in my heart.”
He said Ford “is a great man who runs a great company,” but The Elite could not remain competitive in a changing local market. Ford had remodeled The Elite yet again after he acquired the name and business from Tinsley in 1999, restoring its exterior to the look and feel it had when it first opened on the circle.
“Waco has not seen its population grow that much, but new restaurants are coming in droves,” Citrano said. “There are a lot more places to eat than there once was. Concepts change. Eating habits change. It’s like I tell my employees, ‘You have to earn your place every day,’ which is why I show up to work every day.”
Citrano, who used to drive around town in the baby-blue ’56 Cadillac now parked outside The Elite as a reminder of simpler times, said, “Everybody would love to see the Elite name keep going. But after 97 years, maybe it is time for a change. Maybe a national name will take up the challenge of doing something with the building.”
The Elite Cafe, which for a time operated as The Elite Circle Grille after one of its ownership changes, has been a part of Waco’s history since 1919, when it first opened in downtown Waco. A year later, four Colias brothers bought the restaurant after emigrating from Sparta, Greece. They opened a second location in 1941 on the circle, which would become the classic venue Waco diners and others from around the state came to know and love. The original Elite downtown closed in the 1960s.
At one time, The Elite had a rugged reputation as a place where soldiers hung out to eat, drink and brawl. But that image evolved into one of good times, fine meals and a popular, upscale destination.
Peter Kultgen, whose family founded Bird-Kultgen Ford downtown before relocating to West Loop 340 and Waco’s “Motor Mile,” said he can remember visits to The Elite for business and pleasure. He said he thinks its location and reputation will persuade someone to buy and reopen it.
Through the years, The Elite had seen its menu and decor evolve. Elvis and Baylor Bear memorabilia has been plentiful, as have photographs of iconic slices of Waco life. Under Citrano, The Elite became a popular stop for breakfast, especially on Saturdays when Baylor was playing football. In its early days on the circle, it served shrimp and fine steaks but later became a burger-and-fries emporium that also served Tex-Mex food such as the King Ranch casserole and chicken-fried steak.
Most recently, diners could order ribeyes, fish plates or soups, salads and sandwiches, plus desserts.
“Unfortunately, due to economic reasons, we have made the decision to close our doors and sell the property,” Ford wrote in his note on the door. “We cannot thank the people of Waco and those throughout the state of Texas enough for their patronage and support over the years.”
Waco commercial real estate specialist Jim Peevey said anyone pursuing the building may have to walk a fine line in making changes to its appearance, because the Texas Historical Commission has a historical marker recognizing the structure for its significance.
“Any group going in there must take a rifle approach as opposed to a shotgun approach. They must try to get the right user for it. That has to be the crux of the marketing plan,” Peevey said. “But it is in a great location within the Interstate 35 corridor, which is hot right now.”