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The oldest drive-thru restaurant in Gainesville is reopening in a new way
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The oldest drive-thru in Gainesville? The owners of The Inked Pig on Main Street in midtown say so, and they're reviving the old window for use at the new restaurant. - photo by Nick Bowman

The oldest drive-thru in Gainesville is open for business again, just in time for May’s Historic Preservation Month.

You won’t be able to pull up to the window, but customers at The Inked Pig will soon be able to pick up their orders of brisket, pulled pork, ribs and sandwiches at the window when eating at the picnic tables outside the restaurant.

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Andrew Elliot talks on Tuesday, May 14, 2019, about the work it's taken to renovate and reopen the former Big Bear Cafe location in midtown Gainesville. The historic cafe is now home to The Inked Pig, Gainesville's newest barbecue spot. - photo by Nick Bowman
“We're excited about getting the window back in use,” said Andrew Elliott, co-owner at the midtown Gainesville barbecue restaurant. “It was the first-ever drive-thru in Gainesville. That's what's been told to me … so I'm going off what previous owners said.”

The Inked Pig took over the spot that was the Big Bear Cafe, a longtime favorite for residents in the area and a building that’s been around since 1900. The restaurant got its name from an actual black bear the original owner kept caged on the property.

Because of its history and significance in Gainesville, Big Bear Cafe became the city’s first locally designated historic landmark in 2004.

“These buildings carry so much history and they are the heart and soul of Gainesville,” said Kristen Redmon, manager of Main Street Gainesville.

She said people have “long-term connections” to structures like the one that houses The Inked Pig. Those connections and memories “take people back” and make the city feel “special.”

Redmon likes sitting down with people and talking to them about Gainesville’s history since she grew up in the area and is a self-proclaimed “history nerd.” She shopping for tires recently and got stuck talking about stories of some of the old buildings around town.

Learning about a place’s history, she said, feels like getting to know a good friend.

“When you get to know somebody, you get to know their backstory and you love them a little bit more,” Redmon said. “So I think there’s a lot of value in maintaining these places, and honestly, that’s one of the reasons I’m in love with Gainesville.”

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Jimmy Ellis talks on Tuesday, May 14, 2019, about new recipes being thought up at The Inked Pig at the end of Main Street in midtown Gainesville. - photo by Nick Bowman
And that's part of the reason Elliott and fellow co-owner at The Inked Pig, Jimmy Ellis, like the building that houses their restaurant so much. Customers bring story through their door at the end of Main Street, telling of the building’s history and what things used to be like.

One person came in recently talking about how their parents met at Big Bear Cafe.

“I think it’s the nostalgia,” Ellis said of his favorite thing about the building. “We hear stories all the time of the ‘Millionaire’s Table’ and people coming in and eating at Big Bear and everything.”

Holding onto that nostalgia while still giving the place “a rebirth” when they took over wasn’t easy. Elliott and Ellis needed to completely — and carefully — renovate the inside and outside, making sure they didn’t change too much due to restrictions from its historic landmark designation.

“We can't change these walls,” Elliott said, pointing to the exterior brick of the building. “We can paint them, but we can't change the color.”

There’s also a red and green mural on the side of the building that says “Historic Enterprises Inc.” that has been there for years. It can be touched up, but it has to remain the same unless they find a photo showing that it said something else before.

“I'm trying to find one that says Coca-Cola,” Elliott said. “I'd like to paint over it and go back to Coca-Cola. That would be awesome.”

The front of the building had to remain the same, too. But Elliott said they were fine with that. He said The Inked Pig happens to have the only awning in Gainesville that is allowed to be attached to the sidewalk, so it adds a unique touch to their restaurant.

“The history of the building draws a lot of people out here,” Elliott said. “It has a lot of draw just because of what it used to be … There's a lot of history in this building. And it means a lot to the people in Gainesville. Especially to the people who grew up here and have spent their whole life in this area. They know all about this place."

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Gainesville's oldest drive-thru is coming back into service soon at The Inked Pig, formerly Big Bear Cafe, in midtown. - photo by Nick Bowman

Although the outside of the building has to remain the same, Elliott and Ellis had free reign to do whatever they wanted inside — almost. They left the bar and bar stools in place and kept the structure the same, but they made sure to paint and add different touches to the inside to make it feel new and different.

“We wanted to keep a lot of that original feel,” Ellis said. “We didn't want to start knocking out walls and doing that type of stuff. We wanted to keep the feel the building had, but just remodel it and bring it new.”

There were a few things inside the shop that they couldn’t, and didn’t want to, change.

When people who used to walk into the Big Bear Cafe come in now, they’ll still see some familiar things. On the wall behind the register is another mural. This one says “Drink Jax Beer.” It’s an advertisement for a brewery that was based out of New Orleans. It’s no longer an operational brewery, but the building still stands and the big “Home of Jax Beer” sign still hangs on the side of the 125-year-old building, just like the mural — fading with flaking bits of paint — still remains at The Inked Pig.

“I like the historical look that it has,” Elliott said of the building. “I like the rough, edgy kind of deal.”

The food at the restaurant has that feel, too. Served on a metal tray, Elliott and Ellis said their best sellers are the tried-and-true basics of “pork, brisket and ribs.” People can’t get enough of their fried okra, either.

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Jimmy Ellis gets meat ready for smoking on Tuesday, May 14, 2019, at The Inked Pig in midtown Gainesville. Ellis and business partner Andrew Elliot have brought new life in to the historic cafe in Gainesville, turning the former Big Bear Cafe into a new business that they say stays true to the landmark. - photo by Nick Bowman

Soon, those favorites will be served through the drive-thru window, revitalizing a small piece of Gainesville history that many in the area may remember fondly.

“We're pretty excited about the drive-thru window,” Ellis said. “We've heard a lot of stories about it, so we're pretty excited to have that going … It's definitely a cool feature in here and it's pretty cool to know that it’s there.”

Preserving the historic nature of the building was important to both Elliott and Ellis. They wanted to make sure customers remembered it for what it used to be, but also got excited and felt comfortable coming into what it is now.

After just a few months of being open, it looks like they’ve accomplished both.

“What we were going for was a little rusty,” Elliott said. “Not that clean, crisp type of restaurant, but a place you can come, hang out and have a good time. You don't have to go in a button-up shirt and slacks. And that's barbecue all day long.”

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Andrew Elliot looks through the front windows of The Inked Pig. - photo by Nick Bowman
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