Joel and Shawna Holtman inside Eat-Rite Diner.
Joel Holtman didn't know how much his life was about to change when he casually drove through the intersection of Chouteau Avenue and 7th Street one morning last November. He'd passed that exact spot many times, coming and going from the home he and his wife, Shawna, own in Soulard, and each time he would glance at the intersection's most prominent resident, Eat-Rite Diner (622 Chouteau Avenue).
This time, though, his gaze lingered a little longer. Like most St. Louisans, Holtman was still reeling from the news that the iconic diner was closed indefinitely and might never reopen. As memories of the many meals he'd spent at Eat-Rite flashed through his mind, something caught his eye: L.B. Powers, the 80-year-old owner of Eat-Rite, was sweeping water out of the restaurant's back door. Something told Holtman that he had to stop.
"I stopped to see if he needed help," Holtman recalls. "He told me to come on in, and the next thing I knew, I was sitting down in one of the stools at the counter."
See also: When It's 4 a.m., Go to Eat-Rite for a Slinger — or Just a Reason to Love St. Louis Again
Holtman and Powers began casually chatting, but before they knew it, more than an hour had passed. The newfound friends talked about everything related to Eat-Rite — how it started, how things used to be before the chain fast-food restaurants came in and took away a good deal of business, how Powers was getting older and his health was in no shape to continue to run a restaurant. The restaurant had recently suffered a broken exhaust fan
, and L.B. was thinking it was time to bow out.
"I told him, hey, there has to be a way to keep Eat-Rite open and update the building to the way it used to be back in the 1940s and '50s," Holtman recalls. "I told him, 'You need to bring it back.'"
Powers was receptive to Holtman's message of restoring Eat-Rite to its former glory. He just didn't want to do it himself — but he knew who should.
"He said, 'Joel, I don't have the help. I don't have the time. My health isn't good,'" says Holtman. "Then he said to me, 'You seem like the right guy to take it over.'"
Holtman was shocked by the proposition, but was both humbled and intrigued by the idea of becoming the caretaker for a piece of St. Louis history. As soon as he left, he called his wife and told her about the idea.
"She thought I was nuts," Holtman laughs.
Shawna was used to her husband's crazy ideas, but because they usually had a way of working out, she didn't reject this latest one outright. Instead, she agreed to head over to Eat-Rite with Holtman the following day to meet Powers and his daughter. The four hit it off, and before they knew it, the Holtmans were at Powers' house, meeting L.B.'s wife Dorcas and signing on the dotted line. Though they could barely believe it — and still really can't — Eat-Rite is theirs.
"It's a lot of money and a lot of work," Holtman admits. "However, we're here to save this part of St. Louis history. I didn't want to see it torn down and turned into a parking lot for a baseball game. I want to see history live on."
Taking over the decades-old business has indeed been a lot of money and work for the Holtmans. Though a GoFundMe campaign raised $1,755 to pay for a new exhaust fan
, fixing the problem that originally shuttered the restaurant, that was only the tip of the iceberg. The Holtmans have had to update the electric and HVAC systems, replace all the plumbing, put in new countertops, a new refrigerator and freezer, and get a new griddle and fryer.
"Everything is old there," Holtman explains. "The place hasn't been updated since the early '70s. There was that little gas heater up there with wires sticking out of it — nothing was safe. It actually should've caught on fire."
Fortunately, the Holtmans are no strangers to rehabbing old spaces. The pair are both real estate agents who specialize in the city of St. Louis, and they have been involved in historic rehabilitation projects in the past. In fact, it's their passion for the city and its history that compelled them to save Eat-Rite in the first place.
There is one part of the restaurant that will not see much of a makeover, however: The menu. Holtman insists that he and Shawna plan to keep the food pretty much the same with a few exceptions.
"We'd like to change things up with a fresh burger," Holtman explains. "Mr. Powers told me how he had switched to a Holten [frozen] burger, but that if we were going to change it up, he'd like to see us use fresh burgers again."
Holtman admits that there will most likely be a small price increase to offset the costs of updating the space. Additionally, he and Shawna have launched a Kickstarter campaign
for anyone who wants to contribute and be a part of history. The $20,000 the campaign is aiming to raise will help them reach their goal of having the restaurant open by the Cardinals home opener. From the response they have gotten since announcing that they were taking over the restaurant, he's confident that an overwhelming number of St. Louisans are indeed invested.
"I'm getting messages from people telling me their stories. I even got a photo from someone in the middle of Mexico who has a picture of them in front of Eat-Rite hanging up on their wall," Holtman says.
However, his most sacred tiding came with much more than just a well-wish.
"I actually had a pastor send me a private Facebook message," says Holtman. "He actually blessed me in the message."
For more on the Holtmans' plans, check out their Kickstarter page
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