Culver's Cafe Max celebrates 30 years at Dec. 4 Holiday Hop

By: 
Jeff Kenney
Citizen editor

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article appeared (it has been slightly amended to reflect the five years hence) originally in the July 1, 2010 edition of THE CULVER CITIZEN, and is presented here as the popular downtown dining mainstay celebrates its 30th year in business. In honor of the occasion, Cafe Max will add another facet to the Holiday Hop held at participating Culver businesses Friday, Dec. 4 (in conjunction with the town's tree lighting ceremony and caroling event located at the depot). From 5 to 8 p.m., participating venues will punch the cards of shoppers or diners, with the chance to win a $300 shopping spree.

Cafe Max, in addition will hold a drawing using those same cards for the chance to win a $150 gift basket (winner must be present to win). Participants are encouraged to gather at Cafe Max after a night of shopping, for the drawing.

Another downtown staple, Michelle's Headquarters salon, happens to be celebrating 20 years during the Holiday Hop as well, with an open house from 5 to 8 p.m. coinciding with Culver's Holiday Hop. Champagne and hors d'oeuvres will be available along with gift basket and 20 percent discount gift certificate door prizes. The event will also bid longtime employee Susan Elizondo farewell and welcome new staff member Angie Maroules. Look for our page 1 feature on Michelle's and its owner, Michelle Allyn, in the Nov. 19 (2015) edition of The Culver Citizen.

 

Ask most folks in Culver to list the places or events a first time visitor “must” work in, in order to realize the full “Culver experience,” and answers will, of course, vary. But few would deny that Cafe Max in downtown Culver captures the ambiance of the varied facets of the Culver community in a unique and defining manner.

This year, the restaurant which was the vision of Culver High School graduate Susie Mahler celebrates its 30th anniversary as a local fixture. But it’s more than the decor on the walls though one could almost construct a history of the area by tak ing in the sights on those walls from one’s seat that has cemented its status in the community.

Cafe Max has managed a deceptively unusual feat: to seemingly bridge the many minor “gaps” between Culver’s various communities of town, Lake Maxinkuckee, and Culver Academies. It’s not unusual to spot diners from very diverse back grounds and stations in life seated throughout the place. Mahler, who was just 22 when she bought the busi ness, attributes this wide mixture of clientele and re gard across virtually all barriers differences not only to her inclusion of Culver’s various communities in the restaurant’s decor, but also in her evenhanded approach to her customers.

“Unintentionally in trying to build my business, I did what I thought would make it a good restaurant and to accommodate my customers,” she reflects, “not what did I think would get me more Academy or lake people only, or what would just the locals like. What would I like in a restaurant? We treated every body the same...”

To illustrate this point, Susie Mahler tells one of her favorite stories, of one of Culver Military Academy’s most famous alums, George Steinbrenner.

“It was Academy grad weekend,” she recalls, “and we don’t jump people. We seat everybody in order as they come in. A lady from the Academy was on the list and was very friendly; I didn’t know her name at the time. When I got down to her name...she had to go get her father in from the car, and it was George Steinbrenner. George comes in, and it’s a packed waiting line. I brought (his party) in and showed them their seat...I didn’t know who the guy was! With a smile on his face and in a kind way, he said, ‘Wow, even in New York at Club 54, I don’t have to wait in line, but in Culver, Indiana, I wait in line!’ I spun around and with a smile and said, ‘See that little grayhaired lady down the way? That’s my grandmother, and she waited in line!’ I think that’s why he (Steinbrenner) loved the Café. He and his wife and kids and grandkids always came in.”

Even now, she adds, John Cougar Mellencamp waits in line when he dines at Cafe Max.

“Nobody complains because we are fair. We don’t take photos. I figure they (celebrities) are here to see family; Culver is really all about family; you’re here to be with your family at the Academy or lake, so when they come in, we don’t take photos or let the staff ask for autographs. I’ve had John Denver, Kurt Vonnegut, Malcolm Forbes...I’ve had TV celebrities and recording artists.”

Like many in their teens and early 20s, Susie Mahler planned to move away from Culver. She had worked in its restaurants, including the root beer stand starting at age 14, and spent a year at age 16 working in what is today Cafe Max, when it was still the Home Restaurant, run by Marge Rinehart.

By age 20, she began dating someone seriously and realized for the first time she’d probably be staying in Culver, “So I decided to buy a business before I got married. When I was 21 I was working at the Corner Tavern (today’s Corndance Cafe, at Main and Madison Streets) and approached Nancy (Curtis) and Louise (Measels to buy the restaurant (then known as NanELou’s) and they agreed they wanted to sell.”

Measels, however, had second thoughts and bought out Curtis’ portion of the business, intending to continue running it. Mahler, meantime, decided to take the real estate course and head a different direction, eventually earning her real estate license in May, 1985 with plans to be married June 8.

“That month,” says Mahler, “Louise came back and said, ‘I changed my mind Do you want to buy it?’”

She did, and the newlywed found herself in the restaurant business, quietly taking over the place June 30, just before the July 4 weekend. Mahler changed the name of the business immediately, though she points out the “Max” in the restaurant’s name has nothing to do with Lake Maxinkuckee, as everyone assumes.

“Max was just a name I liked. I didn’t even realize the (lake) connection until customers years later said, ‘Isn’t that cool that you named it after the lake?’”

WALLS CAPTURE CULVER HISTORY

For years before Culver had either of its two downtown museums, Cafe Max served as a kind of unofficial local history museum, or at least a place to drink in Culver's varied past while sipping one's coffee or having a bite to eat. Cafe Max owner Susie Mahler describes the restaurant's decor when she first purchased it 25 years ago as "a gold casino look," with dark paneled walls, a drop ceiling, and flouerescent lighting.

"I stripped it all down," she recalls. "It was very bare then. Remember, I didn’t have a plan for this restaurant because I wasn’t planning on buying it at the time. I was kind of winging it, trying to think between working my 6 a.m. to midnight hours.

"I wish I knew who it was," she continues, "but a customer said, 'Why don’t you decorate with Culver memorabilia? I wanted to decorate with memorabilia of the whole community: it’s town, lake, and Academy, that’s who our community is. It was never a question of excluding somebody."

Mahler addressed Culver's Kiwanis Club last month at Cafe Max about the genesis of the artifacts and memorabilia which line its walls, pointing out the building itself is historic (in the 1920s and 30s, for example, it housed one of Culver's multiple cinemas, the Home Theatre), as is its tin ceiling and wood floors. She explained the large photos -- called composites -- of seniors from Culver High School all predate the 1968 consolidation of area schools into the present-day Culver Community High School.

Another customer suggested she contact Gloria Banks.

"(The Culver High School building) was my mother's high school," explained Mahler, "my junior high, and my sister's elementary. When they remodeled it, they took the photos down and started giving them away. Somebody called up Gloria, who was director of the Culver High School Alumni Association, and she gathered as many as she could, got all but about two or three of the big ones. She stored them in garages, houses, the old VFW house -- all over the place. She also got the senior trip photos. The big class photos go back to 1940, and senior trip ones back to 1920."

Mahler noted all memorabilia pertaining to the town of Culver -- including the high school photos -- is willed to the Antiquarian and Historical Society of Culver, while Culver Academies-related items are willed to the Academies museum, in the event she sells the restaurant or at her death.

She pointed out to her Kiwanis audience several particular items, such as original Culver Citizen newspapers from the two earliest robberies of Culver's State Exchange Bank (1920 and 1933), early Woodcraft and other Academies uniforms, and a handful of senior cords from Culver High School. A lost art today, senior girls collected classmates' signatures on "jumper" attire known as senior cords, while senior boys collected the same on pants, a practice Mahler said ended in the late 1960s "when foul language began to appear on them."

A model of the iconic Academies three-masted square rigger, the Fowler, adorns the south entryway of Cafe Max, constructed by Lymon Craft, the designed and builder of the full-size original Fowler, and the wooden hutch in the same room, notes Mahler, was used as a workbench in the business which once occupied the space, Al's TV and Appliances.

"You can even see the burn marks when people would smoke a lot and lay their cigarettes down," added Mahler with a smile.

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