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Last call: Downtown mainstay Café deVine closing

I reported and wrote this story as a two-day turn, while taking other assignments. I had heard that this restaurant was closing, so I pitched it as a human interest story with an opportunity to talk about the changes that Downtown has experienced.

This piece was originally published as the local cover centerpiece in the Cincinnati and Kentucky editions of The Enquirer Friday, Sept. 18 and online Saturday, Sept. 19. It took first place in the best business profile category of the Ohio SPJ annual contest.

DOWNTOWN — Friday at 5 a.m., Steve and Faye Creech will leave their Wayne Township home. They will make the hourlong drive Downtown together to 309 Vine St. and will serve breakfast and lunch at Café deVine one last time.

The beaux arts-style building, completed in 1928 as an annex to Union Central Tower (now known as the 4th & Vine Tower), will be filled with apartments instead of offices. The old café doesn't fit into the plans.

The Creeches have operated the windowless restaurant, tucked away on the bottom floor of the annex, for 12 1/2 years. But by all accounts, the space has been a restaurant for many decades before that.

One customer remembers eating lunch there with his dad as a kid. That was in 1951. And the ventilation system, which goes through several floors of the building's interior, suggests that the restaurant could've been around even longer.

"These people are absolutely fabulous," Faye, 61, said of her customers, who have been dropping off flowers and homemade cards this week. She smiles as she shows them off.

But when asked how she'll get along after Friday, she gets quiet. Then the tears start.

"I don't know."

After receiving their 90-day notice that they'd have to leave, they immediately told employees so that they might have a chance to find other opportunities. Thus, the restaurant has been operating with a skeleton crew. Twin brothers Lamarco and Lamar Davis, who cook and serve, have stuck with them, as has Alonzo "Lonzie" Turnbow, who has been washing dishes there for 26 years – before the Creeches even bought the place. The husband and wife duo have been working both breakfast and lunch shifts every day recently. On top of keeping the business running, they're trying to find a new space.

Mama Faye, as she's sometimes called by employees, said she hasn't really had time to think about how she'll feel come Monday.

A city always in transition

While we've all heard the jokes that change in Cincinnati comes slowly, there's no doubting this: eventually it comes.

The fate of the old deli echoes that of the places which once stood in the very same spot, but are now lost to time. A plaque erected there by the Union Central Life Insurance Co. commemorates its history: "This site was occupied before 1802 by an Indian Mound. From 1802-1825 by the estate of Judge Jacob Burnet. From 1850-1926 by the Burnet House."

The Burnet House, considered one of the finest hotels in the country at the time, was where President-elect Abraham Lincoln stayed on his inaugural journey to Washington, giving a speech calling for unity with Kentucky from the hotel's balcony. Years later, it's where Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman met to coordinate their troops a year before the Union gained victory in the Civil War.

And yes, there was a restaurant in the Burnet House, too. For 40 cents, you could order the No. 2: Fruit or cereal with rolls or toast, and eggs (boiled, fried or scrambled) with coffee, tea or milk.

In 1926, the Burnet House was razed. Two years later, the nine-story annex was complete. It was home to Central Trust Co. (later called Central Bankcorporation), which was sold to PNC in 1988. Offices were eventually consolidated and moved after PNC acquired National City. Over the the last several years, the building has been mostly empty.

Café deVine likely won't make the history books. Neither will Bissano's, its name before the Creeches owned it, and neither will Twin Trolleys, which is what it was called even before that. But, it's easy to imagine that major business deals have been made at its counters. Celebrations among co-workers for birthdays and promotions have graced its booths.

"It really is a family restaurant," said Shane Sorrell, Faye's son and Steve's stepson who is also a server there.

"We know our customers, we know their kids and they know ours." Shane's daughter was just 6 months old when he started working there. Now she's 6 years old. "A lot of people have watched her grow up."

"That'll be the hardest part if we don't get started back – losing contact with all of those people that we've built relationships with over the past several years," he said.

The millennials are coming

The Creeches are nostalgic, but aren't planning to live in the past. They hope to cash in on the change that's forcing them out.

"These apartments might be the best thing that's happened to us," Steve said.

As Downtown continues to make way for more residential space, they see an underserved market. The change that Steve has seen since he's opened up Downtown is positive, he says: less crime, more restaurants, more residents.

"I think you're going to have a lot more millennials moving Downtown. The urban lifestyle suits them," the 67-year-old said.

Village Green, the Michigan-based company that owns the annex building, also operates the Current at The Banks apartment complex. More residential properties are in the works Downtown as well.

Earlier this year, The Enquirer reported that within just over a decade, the number of people living in Downtown and Over-the-Rhine doubled from 6,962 residents in 2004 to about 15,500 today.

"When we first came here, this building was full," Faye said of the annex, designed for offices. "We kept thinking, 'Maybe they'll fill the building, maybe they'll fill the building.' "

As with most lunch joints Downtown, their business is dependent on the occupancy of the surrounding businesses. They kept hoping for new tenants. And then when businesspeople took their vacations this summer, it was especially rough. Steve used to make loans to employees when they would need an advance, but money got so tight that had to stop.

"This is not the best location in the whole world, either," said Faye.

"At least once a month someone comes in who tells us that they never knew we were here," Steve adds.

They are in negotiations with the operators of a different location Downtown. They likely won't find out if it goes through until at least a month from now. And though it's part of its charm, they want a more visible location than the hidden Café deVine. They're ready to come up with a new menu that still has some of what they're known for – full-service, traditional deli fare – but caters more to the millennials who await.

It's true that Steve and Faye lost their retirement plan. They were supposed to sell Café deVine and their other restaurant, Plaza Café, to Steve's two brothers. But last July, their lease was not renewed at One Centennial Plaza when a new owner came in. That time, they were given a one-week notice that the restaurant would have to close.

"Used restaurant equipment, when you go to sell it, it's pennies on the dollar," said Steve.

The 67-year-old was supposed to be spending his time chasing his eight grandkids right about now. But the Creeches aren't the type to spend all their energy thinking about what could've been. They just adapt.

Steve, who swore he'd never go into the restaurant business after growing up in his parents' 24-hour North College Hill diner, has survived owning and operating five restaurants. He survived buyouts and downsizing in the manufacturing industry before that. And before that still, he survived teaching high school math (which to him was toughest of all).

But most notably, since Plaza Café shut down last July the couple (who celebrated 21 years of marriage this year) has survived living and working side-by-side.

"As long as I let her be the boss, it's OK," Steve said.

"Can I have that in writing? Faye said.

Among the soups, salads and sandwiches that will be served during Café deVine's last lunch rush will be one of their Friday specials: crispy chicken ranch wrap with chips for $5.49. But you can bet that, along with the reasonable prices, customers will be served more than just food.

If the Creeches can find a new place, let's hope that part doesn't change.

Café deVine will serve its last breakfast and lunch Friday at 309 Vine St. In the meantime, you can reach them for catering and find updates

Enquirer Reporter Bowdeya Tweh contributed.

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