Bill Knapp opened his first restaurant in Battle Creek, Michigan on June 21, 1948. As a good Midwesterner, Mr. Knapp was interested in providing decent food for a reasonable price with friendly service. No haute cuisine here, but rather hearty dishes like fried chicken and au gratin potatoes. Dishes that were immediately recognizable in an area that was still largely rural.
Within ten years, Bill Knapp's had spread to other cities within Michigan, though the target clientele remained largely white and lower-middle class. At its height in the 1970's, Knapp's operated nearly a hundred restaurants in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Florida. They now have closer to 50 restaurants, and have been collapsing back into their earlier markets in Michigan proper.
Part of the reason Knapp's has not expanded as a business is that its clientele has remained mostly the same since 1948, and are sadly expiring, often in Bill Knapp's restaurants. Some refer to it as a God's Waiting Room or the Senior Citizen Disco. It is true that demographically Bill Knapp's patrons have not been renewed into younger generations in quite the numbers that would make it viable.
In recognition of that trend, Bill Knapp's launched a campaign in 1999 centered around the slogan "That was then, this is WOW!" showing old clips of the restaurants transposed against images of recently remodeled buildings with "funky" interiors. To some extent, this has been attracting more of a family crowd to the restaurant.
Unfortunately, in a effort to cut costs, Bill Knapp's also decided to diminish their food quality. Previous to 1996, Bill Knapp's used a commissary system where all foods were prepared at a central location and then shipped daily or every other day to restaurants in the area. Very few Sysco products were used. The fried chicken was hand breaded in each restaurant. Delicious chocolate cakes were hand frosted every morning, and au gratin potatoes were baked, not microwaved. In short, the food was actually good. Not all of it, but some of it was genuinely delicious. With the recent changes, however, cheaper chicken is used, garnishes have disappeared, and in general the food has taken second place to the atmosphere, which is a betrayal of the orginal BK ethos.
As recently as 1996, one could get a cup of soup, a tossed salad, biscuits and honey, two pieces of fried chicken and a big piece of chocolate cake for $5.99. Now it is of course $6.29.
Other foods of note were the chicken breasts marinated in a delicious ginger-honey sauce (also good for dipping fries), and warm apple pie with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream, all covered in caramel.
E2 noders who have worked at Bill Knapp's:
In August 2002, Bill Knapp's closed its doors after 54 years of service. The company had receded from their "That Was Then, This is WOW" campaign, and tried to return to their core values. Apparently, the effort was too late and customers lost in the drive to increase market share never returned.
Employees came to work one morning to chained doors and a note from the company president apologizing for letting them know in such a way.
I shall miss the food, the camp and the simple prospect that people dig decent food at a good price.