Restaurant Owners Face Challenges
Husband and wife team Teresa Ezell and Chris Black own and operate The Cave Bar and Grill in Lanagan. They say running a restaurant in a cave comes with unique challenges.
They opened July 4, 2013. Ezell said Black purchased the property in 2011, and it took a couple of years to get it ready to open up to the public.
The property opened for the first time as a restaurant in 1940. From that time on it was open sometimes as a restaurant and sometimes as a touring cave, she said.
“It went into disrepair. The previous owners didn’t know how to handle the flooding issue,” she said.
Before opening the restaurant, Ezell was a high school principal in Indianapolis, Ind., and Black was an IT specialist for the Department of Defense, Ezell said.
Asked how they got into the restaurant business, she said, “It’s kind of our retirement. Something to do.”
The owners keep goats in a pen on the grounds. “The goats are a major attraction,” Ezell said. “They probably get more publicity than some Hollywood stars on the Internet and Facebook. Kids like them and families. While they’re waiting on food, it’s something to do.”
Regarding the challenges of running their own restaurant, Ezell said, “From the ground up, it’s not like a franchise.” She used to own a Subway in Indianapolis, she said.
“The franchise tells you how to make a sandwich … as a little mom and pop place, you have to determine that,” she said.
Another challenge, she said, is making sure your employees understand the standards and the clientele of the restaurant.
“Even though it says ‘bar and grill,’ it’s not a hook-up joint. We have a lot of families that come in,” she said.
Black said once a lady who was about 90 years old came in with her family, and he surmised that she was the one who wanted to make the trip. He said he thought it was neat that she made the effort.
Another time six bartenders from Kansas City came down to check out the restaurant, he said.
They have had visitors from as close as Springfield, Oklahoma and Texas and from as far away as Australia and Africa, Black said.
They have two major sources of clientele — bikers and car clubs, and campers and canoers, Ezell said.
The cave is not open for tours. The owners send anyone wanting to see a cave to Bluff Dweller’s Cave in Noel, Ezell said, noting it is all they can do to keep up with the restaurant.
They open in the spring for weekends only, then, starting Memorial Day weekend, they are open seven days a week until the third week of September, and then they go back to weekends only until the weather does not permit.
The number of employees varies from three to eight (in addition to the two owners).
Ezell said, “It’s a little different running a restaurant in a cave.” They have to not only go through health inspections but also a mining inspection once a year to ensure the integrity of the cave.
“The dining room is considered a cave,” she said.
She also noted the restaurant floods, but they just take out the tables and pressure wash. The building where the kitchen and bathrooms are drains down into the dining room, she said.
“Storage is a problem. I can’t build on. I can’t raise my ceilings. I can’t lower my floors,” she said, pointing to the rock formations.
She said they have learned they cannot keep salt on the tables because of the humidity outdoors.
“It’s an unusual place. It’s unique,” she said. “On a Friday and Saturday night, every seat is filled.”
The restaurant serves American fare, specializing in burgers, as well as sandwiches, salads and appetizers.
Black said, “Most people seemingly really do enjoy the food.”
During the offseason, Ezell said she works on a lot of crafts. She also has another business next door, a convenience store. She is part of the McDonald County Historical Society and, in the past, she has volunteered at the library. She is also on the Lanagan City Council.
Teresa Ezell, owner of The Cave Bar and Grill in Lanagan, is pictured in the restaurant’s dining room.