Restaurants

The Real Story of Houston’s Iconic Cleburne Cafeteria — How Owner George Mickelis Makes Sure This Institution Endures

The Bill Gates of Cafeterias Tells All

BY // 09.22.20

“Do you realize that you’re talking to the Bill Gates of cafeterias?” a well-dressed businessman asks as I sit at a central table in Houston’s Cleburne Cafeteria with owner George Mickelis. He wouldn’t be wrong. As cafeterias have faltered across the nation, with even the beloved Luby’s destined for closure, Cleburne at 3606 Bissonnet is defying the norm.

“We’re hanging in there. We’re very pleased,” Mickelis says with his classic exuberance. “We are going to be the last of the Mohicans if Luby’s bites the dust.”

Highland Park Cafeteria in Dallas, Bryce’s in Texarkana, Albritton’s, Picadilly, Furr’s, Morrison’s, and more have closed across the country in recent years. Yet this iconic West University cafeteria seems to thrive.

“Hey, George, when are you serving pork chops? My wife loves pork chops,” one customer asks on his way out after  finishing lunch. “This is the best food in the world,” another announces as he passes by, adding, “And I’ve eaten all over the world.” A 20-something young man stops by to proclaim that the Cleburne Cafeteria Italian cream cake is the best ever.

All of this, unsolicited. Diners saw me doing the interview and stepped up to the plate, so to speak.

It’s just this kind of passionate fandom that has allowed Cleburne to persevere for 79 years, through two major fires, the last in 2015 causing $3.2 million in damage, and through the COVID-19 pandemic. Mickelis allows that early in the pandemic, business fell to 30 percent of normal, but today it’s back at 80 percent, with all manner of sanitary precautions in place and pickup and delivery options perfected.

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Owner George Mickelis Cleburne Cafeteria owner George Mickelis
Cleburne Cafeteria owner George Mickelis

Fueling the diner loyalty, beyond the tasty comfort food and pleasant surroundings, has to be the gregarious Mickelis, son of Nick and Pat Mickelis, who in 1952 purchased Cleburne from its founders, Anabelle Collins and Martha Kavanaugh. The ladies opened the door to their homespun Houston restaurant in 1941.

Mickelis was born and raised in the dwelling on the second floor above the original Cleburne on Fannin. Today, he and his family with four children live near the cafeteria. That is a good thing, because Mickelis, clearly a dedicated workaholic, is there every morning by 5:30 am along with his dedicated cooks.

“It’s really a poor business model, because it’s so labor-intensive,” he says. “You really have to know how to balance the use of that labor.”

Mickels, talking 100 enthusiastic words a minute, talks about Cleburne’s growth as times changed. Consider the more heart-healthy items on the menu, he points out, such as wild poached salmon and grilled tuna and the addition of healthful offerings such as kale salads, sweet potatoes, healthy root vegetables, cage-free eggs, and free-roaming meats, which are butchered in the cafeteria. He is quick to point out that the organic ingredients have been part of the Cleburne MO since its founding.

Beyond the health-conscious menu items, Cleburne maintains its dedication to fresh, homemade ingredients. The restaurant makes its mayonnaise from scratch. Biscuits, cornbread, and the to-die-for desserts are made each morning, hours before the cafeteria opens.

Cleburne is one of the few resources for such Southern comfort food as okra and tomatoes, chicken and dumplings, fresh vegetables, and turkey and dressing seven days a week.

The eatery’s most popular dish is that turkey and dressing. “It’s Thanksgiving every day at Cleburne,” Mickels says. In fact, Cleburne serves the celebratory dish on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. The cafeteria is open on those major holidays. And, you will find a line out the door for those not cooking.

Cleburne Adapts to the Times

There is an element of nostalgia to Cleburne Cafeteria, and then there is a serious nod to modern dining habits. Cleburne has an impressive wine list — Caymus, Prisoner, Whispering Angel, and Veuve Clicquot — with wine available by the glass or the bottle.

“Nostalgia is part of what we do,” Mickelis says. “We are a true traditional cafeteria — girls in uniforms, menu boards. When everything else in the world is changing, we try not to change anything. We have tried to stay true to the original recipes, true to the original service for our guests.”

Mickelis, who earned his degree in hotel-and-restaurant management at the Hilton College at the University of Houston, counts more than a few notables among his customers. Famed attorney Joe Jamail was a regular, checking in twice a week for the Italian-style zucchini squash casserole. Tony Vallone and Vince Mandola came often for lunch and, most importantly, jello. Apparently, Italian mothers did not have jello at home, and Vallone and Mandola loved the sweet gelatin dessert.

As for the challenges of COVID-19, the ever-enthusiastic Mickelis says, “When you find yourself in hell, keep walking. Always lean forward. Always go forward. Always keep looking through the front windshield, not the back.”

The many notables ordering lunch or dinner from the Cleburne menu boards have included late Texas Governor Anne Richards, former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Victoria Osteen with her mother, Jim Goode and Levi Goode, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Houston Rocket John Lucas, restaurateur Johnny Carrabba, Phyllis and Tony Mandola, Ed Hendee, and all manner of West U families.

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