Big Bear Cafe
Hours: 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7-11 a.m. Saturday
Location: 893 Main St. SW, Gainesville
Phone number: 770-538-0272
On a Wednesday morning, traffic in and out of Big Bear Cafe is steady.
“How was everything, Tobias?” asks owner Chad Vaughan as he rings up a customer.
Vaughan knows almost everyone by name and greets them accordingly. He waves as a truck passes by and honks at him outside of his restaurant.
If the 50-year-old restaurant owner doesn’t recognize the person walking through the door, he talks to them and gets to know them. Usually if they’re from out of town, they used Yelp to find the restaurant, he said.
“A lot of people say ‘this is my Cheers,’” Vaughan said of the atmosphere in the restaurant. “What they don’t realize is, it’s everybody’s ‘Cheers,’ because everybody knows everybody’s name here.
“You know their personalities, you meet ‘em (and) you know the person and to me that’s what history was,” he continued.
The history is key for Big Bear Cafe and its owner, especially since 80 years ago Big Bear Cafe opened its doors on July 15, 1936.
Throughout the years, the cafe has had several owners and locations and experienced change with the passing of time. Its current owner is Vaughan, who has operated the establishment for 12 years after purchasing it from Heyward Hosch in 2004.
He runs the restaurant at its original location on Main Street near Industrial Boulevard, which it returned to more than 20 years ago.
Vaughan explained the original owner G.C. Dago Barron didn’t necessarily want to call the restaurant “Big Bear” but since a caged bear was outside the establishment the name stuck.
“There were guinea pigs, owls, it was like a little zoo,” he said. “They were all lined up out there and you could just go see them.”
Big Bear started off as a railroad cafe — and Vaughan said it’s still that today. Currently located near the Amtrak station, train whistles can be heard nearby.
In the days where the train was the main mode of transportation, travelers got off the locomotive nearby and stopped to eat at the restaurant.
However, once World War II ended, people stopped riding the rails as often. Instead more households started owning cars. After that, the Big Bear moved to Cleveland Road.
The name has changed over the years, at one point it was called T and C Cafe. And in the 1950s, the current location was known as Pirkle’s Cafe.
“People who weren’t alive in the ’30s and ’40s only remember the Big Bear that was on Cleveland Highway,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan said about 25 years ago, Hosch bought the site of the current Big Bear, renovated it and put a new roof on it. It was then reopened with the moniker, Big Bear Cafe.
When Vaughan bought the cafe, he was committed to keeping it as close to the original restaurant as he could. To do so, he showcased some of the area’s history with newspaper clippings and old photos and paintings — all of which have meaning to him.
“I intentionally keep it like you’ve gone back in time,” he said.
What’s served on the menu has changed over time.
“The menu is basically what my grandmother used to cook and how she cooked it,” Vaughan said.
Based on his background in health and fitness, Vaughan doesn’t use processed oil or margarine at the restaurant. He considers his vegetables to be “clean” since he doesn’t season them with pork. Biscuits are made with fresh buttermilk, real butter and White Lily Flour. The gravy served at Big Bear is also homemade.
“There’s no pre-battered stuff, I don’t cook in processed oil — that’s really my big thing,” he said.
Similar to the Barrons who founded the first Big Bear, family members are a staple at the cafe.
Vaughan’s father, Jerry, frequently can be found at the restaurant with him.
“Dad had a stroke, so I take care of him full-time and I take him to work with me,” Chad said. “If had a different kind of job, I wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Keeping family close is important, but Vaughan has built another type of family at the restaurant.
Although Vaughan knows the names and various details of his customers lives, he knows one especially well and considers him family — Cecil Boswell.
The 97-year-old World War II veteran comes to Big Bear daily, sometimes more than once a day. Boswell has been coming to Big Bear since it opened in 1936, when he was 19 years old. He lived nearby 80 years ago and still lives in that same house today.
“If he doesn’t come in, I’ll go check on him,” Vaughan said, recalling a day when Boswell didn’t answer his phone or door.
He broke into the house to look for him. Turns out Boswell had gone to eat elsewhere with a friend.
Vaughan refers to Boswell as his best friend and has helped him with everything from changing a flat tire on his car to being at his bedside during a hospital stay.
“God blesses me every day,” Vaughan said. “I couldn’t have a better life. I’m rich in friends.”
Boswell has helped Chad piece together the 80-year history of the Big Bear.
“The building hasn’t changed, but the service had,” Boswell said. “He’s (Chad) good to me. He gives me my breakfast. He takes care of me.”
Boswell recalled the live animals that once were housed outside along the back wall of the building.
“They had everything from snakes on up,” he said.
Pictures of Boswell once decorated one wall at Big Bear, but as of June only three were left. Vaughan said people keep taking them.
The cafe owner treats all of his customers like friends. He makes it part of his business to get to know all of his customers.
“They’re all friends, and if you don’t know everybody in here when you walk in, you know it before you leave,” he said. “Everyone is interesting, but you don’t know it.”