For nearly 30 years, Historic Don & Dona’s Restaurant in Franklin has been a place for residents and visitors to get a hot breakfast, sit and chat over cups of coffee and bring their families on the weekend for a meal.
The governor campaigned there, politicians talked about current events, and business owners met before starting their day. The restaurant’s gravy was must-have, and the fish was nonstop on Fridays.
All of that is coming to an end.
The restaurant has been closed for more than a month waiting for facade work on its building, and owners decided this week not to reopen.
Owners Jim and Mary Barnaby planned to reopen once the project to renovate the storefront was done but have now decided to close the restaurant permanently and sell. They’ve owned the restaurant at 18-20 E. Jefferson St. since 2001 and are the third owners since Don and Dona Shaw moved into the building in 1985.
Business had been slowing since summer, forcing the restaurant to reduce staff, said manager Kathy Barnaby, who is the owners’ daughter. Kathy Barnaby and her husband, Chris Nix, had been doing some interior remodeling to make way for a new bakery in the front of the store and to prepare for the facade project, which would involve tearing out and replacing the entire front wall of the restaurant.
Don & Dona’s closed in December in anticipation of the facade work, but the project never started because the contractor handling the project has not been consistently working on it or other buildings in Franklin.
With the restaurant losing money every day it was closed and not making enough to pay expenses when it was open during the slowdown, the family decided to close.
The building housing the restaurant will be for sale, as well as the one next door at 26 E. Jefferson St., which currently houses a law office for attorney Jennifer Jones Auger. The Barnabys also are considering selling the Don & Dona’s business if someone is interested in purchasing and reopening the restaurant.
“With this construction seeming to be unending and my husband and I are 70 years old, we think it’s time to get on with being retired. Maybe whenever the construction is finished, maybe someone else will have the youth and spirit to continue,” Mary Barnaby said.
The building has become a part of Franklin history and not only because it was built in the 1840s. Local Republicans seeking public office would gather and listen to election results at the restaurant. Gov. Mitch Daniels stopped there when campaigning for his first term in office.
The Barnabys fought against the city’s smoking ban, going so far as to become a private club to keep smoking as an option for customers. And the restaurant became a tradition for Franklin residents and visitors to eat and chat with friends and family.
After seeing the same faces so often for so many years, the customers became family, Kathy Barnaby and Nix said.
“It’s really hard thinking this place won’t be here any more. I think of it like the TV show ‘Cheers.’ The same people coming in every day. When you don’t see them, you start to worry,” Nix said.
The owners have been waiting for construction to start on the building facade, which is being done as part of a $650,000 downtown program being funded partially by a state grant. Work to tear out the front wall and build a new historic facade was supposed to be done in November, Kathy Barnaby said.
Workers took off the building’s awning months ago, which made some people wonder if a new business had moved in, Nix said. Kathy Barnaby and Nix moved the ice cream counter, registers and booths away from the front wall to make way for construction, but the work never started.
The restaurant shut down in mid-December to make way for the remodel. Since the entire front wall would be removed, there was no way the restaurant could remain open during that period because it would be too cold and dangerous for customers to get around, Kathy Barnaby said.
The work has never started, and the business kept losing money while it was closed, Mary Barnaby said. The city has been unsuccessful in trying to get the contractor responsible for the facade work to show up and get to work on the eight buildings in the facade program and is now working to end the contract.
Kathy Barnaby and Nix already had started to renovate the front of the restaurant, including removing the drop ceiling to expose the original handmade ceiling panels. As older customers would come in and see the original ceiling, they’d launch into stories about visiting when they were children and reminiscing about times 50 years ago, Kathy Barnaby said.
Law offices or other shops could remain open while waiting, but Don & Dona’s already was seeing a decline in business, Mary Barnaby said.
Without the awning on the building, anyone visiting Franklin wouldn’t even realize a restaurant was there, Nix said.
“A lot of the businesses don’t depend on 200 people walking through your door every day,” Mary Barnaby said.
The restaurant employed 25 to 30 people, and the owners couldn’t keep stringing people along waiting for the eatery to reopen, Mary Barnaby said. Most of the workers have moved on to new jobs since the restaurant closed in December, she said.
The connections they made with customers will be one of the greatest losses, Kathy Barnaby and Nix said. People were so attached to the restaurant that they heard complaints when they had to shift booths or tables because a certain group might have sat in one booth in one spot every weekend for decades, Kathy Barnaby said.
Customers have asked to put up small plaques at specific tables remembering longtime customers who sat there for years and who had recently died.
Mayor Joe McGuinnness had meals there with his grandparents when he was a child, but despite the announcement to close, he’s not convinced the restaurant is dead yet. The Barnabys were the third set of owners since 1985, and if the business is for sale, another person might be willing to buy it and reopen the historic downtown restaurant, he said.
Kathy Barnaby and Nix don’t know what they’re going to do next now that the restaurant is closing. Even talking about it brings tears to her eyes. They’re figuring it out one day at a time, she said.
“It’s sad to see so many ma-and-pa places go away. We made 99 percent of the meals from scratch; we’d make things that kids had never even heard of before,” Kathy Barnaby said. “You don’t see too many places like that any more.”