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UH alumnus reopens historic cafeteria after devastating fire


George Mickelis, UH alumnus and the owner of Cleburne Cafeteria, poses for a photo inside his newly rebuilt restaurant. It was closed for a year and a half after a fire destroyed the former location. | Michael Slaten/The Cougar

George Mickelis, owner of the Cleburne Cafeteria just 7 miles from UH, runs his personal and professional life through his faith and his motto: “family first.” Mickelis, a UH alumnus, graduated from the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management in 1982.

Mickelis’s restaurant was destroyed by a fire in April 2016 and reopened Nov. 14 after a complete rebuild. Mickelis said one of the most important lessons he learned from his father, who bought the restaurant in 1952, is where to assign his priorities.

“The guests in my restaurant are kings,” Mickelis said. “I can have the best food in the world, but without them I have nothing.”

Michelle Fontana, 51, a patron at Cleburne Cafeteria, said she has been coming to the restaurant with her family since she was a little girl. “George has always had the same demeanor ever since I can remember,” she said.

Paintings by Mickelis’s father, Nick Mickelis, adorn the walls of Cleburne Cafeteria. The fire that destroyed the restaurant in April 2016 was the second to ravage the restaurant in its history. The original fire in 1990 destroyed a lot, but Mickelis was able to recover almost all his father’s paintings.

After the most recent fire, Mickelis wasn’t so lucky.

Mickelis, a deeply spiritual man, said he found a silver lining when it came to which paintings were saved.

“I believe that these particular paintings were unharmed because it’s my father’s way of talking to me,” Mickelis said. “And I try to follow his message every day.”

After the restaurant burned down, insurance paid for the employees’ salaries for the first year. Since then, Mickelis has paid them out of his own pocket for seven months so that they could continue to maintain their standard of living while they were out of work.

After suffering a second restaurant fire in the span of 16 years, and the losses which accompanied both, some might be dejected. Mickelis said he never once doubted that his restaurant and his team would not only make it back but would be more successful than ever.

“Walk by faith, you know? No matter how many obstacles I encounter on my journey, I know that my faith in God will lead me through to the other side stronger than before,” Mickelis said.

It’s a tradition for the Cleburne Cafeteria to be open on Christmas. The first year that Mickelis’ father owned the business, some guests showed up on Christmas Day, and the older Mickelis thought they should not be turned away. 

When he saw how happy those people were to have a place to spend their holiday, Nick Mickelis decided to remain open every Christmas. After Nick passed away in 1989, George decided that he would continue his father’s tradition.

The opportunity for guests to watch the preparation of their food is another tradition Mickelis said was important to continue after renovations. The meat case dish allows guests to choose their own steak from a selection in front of them and have it made to order. 

“I absolutely love being able to pick out my own steak,” said Jessica Vazquez, who was dining at Cleburne Cafeteria. “It allows you to really inspect your selection and you know that you won’t get one that has a lot of fat or anything.”

The meat case is another ode to Nick Mickelis, who would bring his grill to the front of the store in the evening and make steaks right in front of the guests.

“This was something that my father started, and our customers loved it,” Mickelis said. “So I didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t bring that back for them during the reconstruction.”

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