Battle Creek’s Clara’s on the River opened to diners on Monday and the dining room looks unusually festive for this time of year.   The restaurant, housed in a historic train depot in downtown Battle Creek is all decked out for Christmas.   Owner Ross Simpson says they’re calling it Christmas in February.

Clara's on the River Christmas in February1-TSM Photo

“Back on November 15th, we had just finished decorating the restaurant when the Governor’s shutdown order closed us down again,” said Simpson.  “Nobody ever got to see it and the staff worked so hard that we decided to leave everything up.”  A lot of things are different at Clara’s, but customers probably won’t notice them.

During the first state shutdown last spring and early summer, Simpson took advantage of the downtime to make many improvements to the restaurant, mostly for the safety of patrons during the pandemic.

They installed automatic doors, faucets, and flush valves, soap and towel dispensers in all six bathrooms.  They put in new carpets, new booths that can be easily cleaned and sanitized, and built a new take-out station, and set up car-hop style dining.   They even restored the clock in the tower.

This time, Simpson has installed four exhaust units in the ceiling that allow the air to be refreshed constantly inside.  “I think we may have the cleanest air of any building in town, including the hospital,” said Simpson.   He also replaced the old boiler with new, more efficient units, and expects that they’ll pay for themselves in just a few years.   Simpson says he applied early for state loans that allowed him to make the improvements.

The current state order only allows a restaurant to operate at 25% of capacity.   Clara’s can normally have up to 380 inside.  But that number is just 95 right now.   Simpson says that’s just about enough to stop the bleeding.   They’ve been getting by on take-out orders, and a few hearty diners eating outside on the patio in heated cabanas.   The challenge now is making sure they don’t exceed the 95 capacity.

Clara's on the River-Capacity App-TSM Photo

Simpson says the solution was to install a unit they installed at the restaurant entrance.   It keeps count of people entering and leaving.  Staff members can view the app on their phone and know exactly how many patrons are inside the restaurant.

Another app allows staff to do the required daily health assessment on their phone in just a few seconds, and get the ok to safely report for work.

Clara’s has outdoor propane heaters for the patio, once things warm up a bit, and Simpson also bought several propane heaters that are often used by fishermen in ice shanties to warm up the outdoor cabanas.

Clara's on the River-outdoor cabanasTSM Photo

Simpson says all but about four staff members have continued to work at Clara’s during the shutdown, aided by a state program that allows them to collect partial unemployment while they’ve worked reduced hours during the shutdown.

Simpson took advantage of a late afternoon lull to review some historic photos of the former train depot.  He says Michael McCullough of Willard Library is working with local historians Randy Case and Kurt Thornton to do a special on-line program on Clara’s.

Clara's on the River-Ross Simpson2-TSM Photo
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