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Despite restaurant closing, patron’s memories keep institution alive

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In the heart of downtown Franklin, Don & Dona’s Restaurant was known for its biscuits and gravy, massive sandwiches and a great cup of coffee.

To the patrons who loved it, the eatery was a place to make memories. It was where parents took their children for their first milkshakes, where fathers and daughters met to discuss their week.

College friends would gather in the morning to recover from late nights, and showers for expectant mothers and brides-to-be were hosted at its well-worn tables.

When owners of Don & Dona’s announced it would not reopen after closing temporarily in December, area residents mourned the loss of a downtown Franklin institution. Fans said that after 30 years, Franklin is losing a large piece of what made it so special.

“The city is never going to be the same. Its closing will leave a void in the community,” said Sarah Rosenbaum, a Franklin native and part-time resident. “My daughter wants to know where she is going to get her pancakes now.”

Don & Dona’s opened in 1982, when Don and Dona Shaw established their diner in a historic 1840s building across from the Johnson County Courthouse.

Since then, the business has switched hands three times. The most recent owners, Jim and Mary Barnaby, took over in 2001.

Like much of downtown Franklin, the exterior facade of Don & Dona’s was being renovated. The Barnabys closed the restaurant in December in anticipation of the improvements, as well as to do some work to the interior.

With the outdoor renovations dragging on, the Barnabys decided to close permanently and sell.

The hope is that they can find the right buyer who wants to take over and reopen the restaurant. The exterior work might not be finished until mid-May, and it’s difficult to market an unfinished business, Mary Barnaby said.

“It’s been so sad for all of us, almost like someone has died,” she said.

Since the announcement in late January, supporters have made it clear just what Don & Dona’s meant to them.

For Karla Wells, the restaurant will always spark memories of her father, Robert Sanders. After he had to be moved to a Franklin nursing home, Don & Dona’s was where Wells would take him to get a cup of coffee.

“We would talk about old times, old-time Franklin, all of the old buildings. He’d talk about how much it had changed and how much it meant to him,” Wells said.

On Father’s Day, the two would grab breakfast or lunch at the restaurant. Wells would always order biscuits and gravy or French toast. Together, they would chat and catch up in a relaxed atmosphere.

One of Wells’ favorite memories stemmed from the downtown Franklin holiday lighting ceremony six or seven years ago. She had never been, and her father hadn’t seen the lighting for many years.

They stood outside in the cold while the festivities swirled around them.

When they wanted a break, father and daughter moved into Don & Dona’s to get warm.

“We talked about how the lights had changed, and Santa Claus used to be in the little house,” she said.

Sanders died in 2008. But Wells will always hold on to the good memories she had with him, often at a table at Don & Dona’s.

“It was just a place for dad and daughter,” Wells said.

The restaurant was often a place for celebration.

Franklin resident Michelle Landrum had her bridal shower at Don & Dona’s nearly 23 years ago. Her aunts rented it for an afternoon.

The day after her wedding in October 2010, Franklin resident Amanda Hendershot went with her friends and husband for a celebratory breakfast. Everyone was tired from a late night of dancing, and the girls still had styled hair from the night before.

“I’m sure we looked funny wearing hoodies and updos, but we didn’t care,” she said. “That’s just where we all went on Sunday mornings once in a while, the perfect place to meet the day after.”

Don & Dona’s was a tradition for Hendershot and her group of friends. Before driving for an outing in Brown County or a day in Indianapolis, they would meet at the restaurant for one of the legendary breakfasts.

Hendershot went with a mix of biscuits and gravy, eggs, bacon and seasoned potatoes. It was enough to tide her over for the entire day.

“That way, we didn’t have to eat lunch. We could just skip it,” she said.

Breakfast seemed to be a favorite of the Don & Dona’s clientele.

Kaylea Strain, who grew up in Franklin, remembered going to eat biscuits and gravy with her grandparents. Joyce Harms, who lived in Franklin before moving to Texas, loved the fried mush, a staple made from cornmeal, salt, sugar and water.

Greenwood resident Laura Pruitt Moore called it “the best breakfast ever.”

Rosenbaum was partial to the Reuben sandwich. She can still taste the juicy corned beef, tart sauerkraut and melted cheese on toasted rye bread.

She grew up in Franklin, attending Franklin Community High School and Franklin College. Though she now lives in Orga, Norway, most of the year, she has fond memories of the hours she spent at a Don & Dona’s table.

One of the first dates she ever had with her future husband, Oystein Nilsen, was at Don & Dona’s. They were both students at Franklin College.

She treated her children to their first milkshakes at the restaurant. On a hot summer day, the owners allowed them to stop in and cool down, even as they were about to close.

“We may not have dined at D&D’s often enough,” she said. “But when we did it was always a welcoming and enjoyable experience.”

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