On This Day in 1948: The First Bill Knapp’s Restaurant Opens in Battle Creek
I am going to admit something to you that I've never told anyone before: I have never had a slice of the famous Bill Knapp's celebration cake.
Though I was born and raised in west Michigan, somehow Bill Knapp's escaped me and my family. Written on the outside of their boxes it literally says, "Helping families celebrate since 1948!" but I guess mine is the one family even Bill couldn't help! Why did it take me so long to hear of this Michigan-born staple?
Who Was Bill Knapp?
Clinton "Bill" Knapp was a former traveling salesman from New York. After Knapp settled in the Battle Creek area and began working at various local bakeries, he eventually decided to get into the food service industry himself.
Battle Creek Beginnings
Bill, along with a few investor friends, opened the first Bill Knapp's restaurant on Capital Ave. in Battle Creek on July 21, 1948. Known for its made-from-scratch homestyle meals and affordable prices, the company operated over 60 restaurants and 3 commissaries across Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Florida during its peak.
What made Bill Knapp's a favorite for families was the generous birthday discounts. When you celebrated your birthday at Bill's you'd receive a free birthday celebration cake and a discount on your bill equivalent to your age. In fact, in 2001 a Michigan man named Duane Hawkins celebrated his 101st birthday at Bill Knapp's and not only was his meal free but the restaurant owed him money! You just can't find that kind of deal nowadays.
What Happened to Bill's?
Because Bill's catered to families and older diners, their clientele eventually started to dwindle. Failed attempts at re-branding, coupled with a string of food poisoning outbreaks, made it hard for the restaurant to recover. In the spring of 2002 the restaurant filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy and by the end of the year the chain's 29 remaining restaurants had closed.
The Celebration Lives On!
Although the physical stores are closed you can still find Bill Knapp's bakery items in local grocery stores like Meijer. The recipe for Bill's famous celebration cake was sold to Awrey's Bakery out of Livonia and the Knapp brand now caters wholesale to its distributors. Bill's may be gone, but it's certainly not forgotten!