by: DAVID F. ASHTON - Craig Thomas plates up a salmon dinner. Though the restaurant was famous for its steak, its seafood never disappointed, either.After the last of the day’s diners – and there were a great many of them – departed, on Saturday night, September 15, the dishes were washed and the pots and pans were scrubbed. And then the kitchen of Country Bill’s Restaurant fell silent for the very last time in its 48-year history.

The atmosphere during the final two weeks of this renowned restaurant’s existence was somewhere between a New Year’s Eve party and a wake. Literally hundreds crowded in for their last meals there. By the last four days, one dining room had been set aside for those waiting for tables, each party holding a numbered sign, while being entertained by Country Bill’s memorabilia and a photo slide show.

“I used to own a furniture store across the street,” said 40-year patron Lew Lehr, who brought his wife and friends to dine on the closing weekend. “I’d come here every other night with customers and friends. It makes me cry every time I think about it closing.”

“We’ve been coming here for about 30 years,” recalled Bernice McCreery. “It’s like home for Tom and me – except our house isn’t usually this crowded.”

Among the crowd waiting for a table, Shannon Kraft told THE BEE, “I grew up in this neighborhood, and our family has come here for 40-plus years. It’s too bad that all of Portland’s great restaurants are now gone.”

In the lounge, 30-year customer Don Mattoon reminisced with “Mrs. Country Bill’s” – Carole Thomas – about his best memory at the restaurant. “Twelve years ago, I gave Talana her engagement ring, and she accepted it – at that table, right here next to us.”

A lifetime of food service

After taking time off on his first Sunday in years, owner Craig Thomas sat down and talked with us about his lifetime serving patrons in this family-owned business.

“My dad and mom were great,” Thomas began. “My dad had been in food service in Utah. We moved a lot, and my parents found Portland.

“Two guys named ‘Bill’ had this lounge in Woodstock, and couldn’t make it in the business. My parents bought the business from them for $600 in 1964. My brother and I were here on the first day – I was 15 then – working alongside my parents,” Thomas recalled.

“We’ve always been very work-oriented; working 60 and 70 hour weeks for many years.”

With the blessing of their landlord at the time, the hardworking family took over one storefront after another, expanding east along S.E. Woodstock Boulevard. When the landowner died, the family arranged to purchase the building and property. That was in 1978.

Very low staff turnover

In addition to an unflagging work ethic, Thomas attributed the longevity of Country Bill’s to having a great staff.

“We’re legendary among restaurants in this town for having almost no wait or bar staff turnover. How we did it is simple: We treat them right, and they keep customers happy.”

And, many adults had their “first job” at Country Bill’s. “We hired perhaps thousands of kids over the years, from Cleveland, Franklin, and Marshall, Central Catholic, and La Salle High Schools.

“As years passed, we’d have four or five kids from same family. They’d stay for a couple of years, then train their younger sibling when it was time for them to move on.”

And, over the years, many family members joined the staff as well. They became like family to the customers.

Secret formula for success

Another factor to the restaurant’s longevity was a common-sense approach to business.

“Our whole deal – our mantra – was ‘Put out a great meal at a price everybody can afford.’ Even though we have a lounge, and finally put in some video lottery machines, more than 70% of our revenue came from food. That’s unheard of in this business.”

Their formula worked; diners came back daily or weekly, instead of once a year for a special celebration, Thomas observed.

“And we made it a ‘neighborhood place’ that welcomed everyone who came in, from a guy wearing a T-shirt to someone dressed for business.”

Renowned for miles around

Most restaurants and lounges pull regular clientele from about a two-mile circle out from the establishment, Thomas pointed out.

“Then you have another ring out another two or three miles beyond that, of people who come infrequently. But, our ‘radius’ was the entire metro region. Our ‘core’ customers come from Southeast Portland. But we have guests who regularly come from Salem, Woodburn, The Dalles, Hillsboro, Scappoose – we had a unusually large circle for a restaurant.”

Less frequently, longtime customers came in from Washington, Idaho and Northern California. “We had someone fly in from Sweden, when they found out that we are closing. They were here in our last week – they ordered hamburger, and chicken and dumplings. We saw people who came in from Denver on closing day.”

The big question: Why close?

“I’ve seen the same four kitchen walls for 48 years. Days, nights, weekends, and holidays – you have to be willing to ‘give those all away’ to serve your customers who are coming to see you for their special occasions.You have to be married to this business.

“We’ve stayed in this business because we have the best customers. It was fun to do this, but life only goes on so long. Our mom, dad, and brother died working in this business. My wife and I, we decided we’re just not doing that. We’ve chosen to spend our last years outside, traveling.”

Now that the neighborhood’s favorite restaurant is closing, where will the Thomas’ dine out?

“I’ve heard that question more than a hundred times in the last two weeks,” Thomas grinned. “You know, I still don’t have an answer. For me and my family, we’re used to eating here – we have great steaks and seafood! We are looking forward to exploring other restaurants. But, I think I could probably cook myself a steak at home, if I wanted!”

Going out “clean”

Purveyors stopped by to say their goodbyes, and service providers packed up their equipment as we talked.

“With so many big chains that go bust – they just lock the doors and all of their purveyors and workers usually get hurt. But in our case, all of our people, purveyors, and suppliers knew far in advance what we were doing.”

His eyes grew moist, as Thomas paused and then added, “We went out ‘clean’; just like we went into business.”

Asked what he’d like to say to the community, Thomas replied, “My friends, you made us. I love you all, and we appreciate you so much. Our ‘reader board’ on the wall outside is small, but it says it all: ‘Thanks for 48 great years’.”

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