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Mayflower Café started tasty career

POSTED: June 14, 2009 1:00 a.m.

If you lived in Hall County or nearby in the 1950s, more than likely you had a meal at the Mayflower Café.

It was at the corner of Broad and Main in downtown Gainesville. At the time, the other corners of the intersection were occupied by Palmour Hardware, Jimmy Wood's Standard Oil Station and Western Auto. Broad Street then also was U.S. 23, and Ethel Caras, who with her husband, Jimmy, ran the Mayflower, said that intersection was the site of Gainesville's first traffic light.

Jimmy and Ethel met in a restaurant in Macon , married in 1937, ran a restaurant there and came to Gainesville in 1940. They advertised for a new name for the restaurant that became the Mayflower in Gainesville and did a bustling business for 19 years.

The Mayflower was popular because it was open 24 hours and was a regular stop for Greyhound buses at all hours of the night.

"We had the biggest breakfast in North Georgia," Ethel remembers. "For 15 cents, you could get eggs, bacon, grits, toast and coffee." The menu also added waffles, somewhat new to Gainesville eateries.

The restaurant prospered during World War II despite food rationing and price controls that held their lunches at 49 cents. "But we managed some way," Ethel said. It helped that men and women at the Naval Air Station at Gainesville's airport frequented the place.

Health problems caused Jimmy Caras to slow down a little, and they closed the Mayflower in 1959. But customers followed when they opened the Imperial Restaurant in the former Nicholson's Restaurant on Atlanta Highway.

The Imperial was different, a little more upscale, and seafood and chicken dishes became their specialties. Nineteen seafood items were on the menu. Only lunch and dinner were served, no big breakfast, as at the Mayflower. Although it wasn't a 24-hour operation, the Imperial still required a lot from the Carases.

"During one time, I worked two straight years without a day off," Ethel said. That was when the Imperial began to close on Mondays to give the Carases and their staff a break.

It was at the Imperial that Ethel Caras began to earn a reputation for her catering. "It just kind of dropped in my lap," she said. Catering requests outgrew the small private dining room at the Imperial, so she suggested bringing the food to people's homes or other locations.

After the Carases sold the restaurant to the Swamp Guinea in 1973, Ethel equipped the basement of her home with commercial kitchen equipment and expanded her catering business.

She well remembers one of the largest catered events in her career. "Sixteen hundred and eighty-one people at the Civic Building," she said, recalling the exact number as if it were yesterday. The number kept increasing almost daily from about 600 at first until she was having tables and chairs being brought in up until a few minutes before the program, which featured such public figures as 9th District Rep. Phil Landrum and Judge Tom Candler.

Another biggie was when Gainesville's Service League launched its Perennials cookbook at a reception at the Civic Center.
Jimmy Caras died in 1980, but Ethel carried on her business from home.

When people thought of catering, they thought of Ethel Caras. She kept kind of a journal of each event, whether a wedding reception or a private party, and estimates they numbered into the thousands. She already knew a lot of people through the Mayflower and the Imperial, but Ethel got to know many more through her catering. And most everybody knows her.

Health problems forced her to retire about three years ago. Her last event was the 90th birthday for the late Jane Eve Wilheit.

Ethel frequently fields suggestions from friends to compile a cookbook. But her daughter, Elaine Waller, told her it wouldn't be easy because her mother adds a little here and a little there that it would be hard to write down.

In retirement, Ethel Caras enjoys day trips with friends, a lot of bridge and numerous other activities. Every now and then, she misses cooking and will slip into her catering kitchen and whip up a few dishes for friends or family.

She has two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times, His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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