TERRE HAUTE —
Preserving the past, while taking care of the present and preparing for the future seems to be a three-course approach that is working well for the owners of the landmark Saratoga Bar and Cafe in downtown Terre Haute.
The Saratoga is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, hosting special events such as Thursday night’s cabaret dinner theater.
“We feel so honored to still be here, at the same location, and in the same family,” said Cathy Azar, daughter of original co-owner Abe Malooley.
Cathy and her husband, George, and their third daughter, Alexis Green, now operate the downtown business at the corner of Fifth Street and Wabash Avenue. It’s a labor of love for the family — even when they aren’t working they find themselves thinking about menus and other aspects of the business.
“We sit at home at night and try to come up with things to do for the next week,” George said, laughing.
Tie-ins with the 70th anniversary are among things that keep the Saratoga fresh for its customers, and for the family who has invested generations into the business.
The Saratoga got its start in 1942 when Joe Malooley purchased it from local attorney George Nasser, who was a brother-in-law to Abe Malooley. Like his predecessor Nasser, Joe soon found that running a restaurant took a lot of time and energy.
So when younger brother Abe returned to Terre Haute after serving in World War II, Joe asked Abe to join him in the business.
With Joe and his long-time companion, Lucille Perkins, handling the evening business, Abe took on the breakfast and lunch side. Abe’s wife, Kate, joined the team, and the Saratoga became a family operation.
Abe and Kate had three daughters, and their youngest — Cathy — was the one who would follow their footsteps. Her husband, George, joined the Saratoga as daytime manager in 1977. Just two years later, George and Cathy received Abe’s support in starting Azar’s Catering Service, which still operates as a complementary business to the Saratoga.
“They gave us a lot of encouragement and advice,” Cathy said of her parents.
In the 1960s, the business expanded from its corner location into the space next door, which originally housed a hardware business. An etching of the original building hangs in the cafe, and shows the original bank building on the corner, with the Cory and Crowder Hardware next door.
George said the bar side of the building was leased from local businessman Tony Hulman for many years. When the Malooley brothers purchased the neighboring hardware store and expanded their business to include the present-day restaurant seating area, Abe made a handshake purchase agreement with Hulman to buy the corner building housing the bar.
The Malooleys did booming business for many years at their corner location. But as the make-up of the downtown changed — with department stores relocating to shopping malls — foot traffic declined. Still, the family-run business adapted — changing its hours of operation, and keeping the menu fresh.
A dessert table with that day’s offering greets patrons in the dining area. On the bar side, the walls are decorated with movie posters and photos of local landmarks. There’s also a photo of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who in 2007 made a campaign stop as she ran for president.
While Clinton is the most notable celebrity to stop at the Saratoga, others have stopped in over the years. Ricardo Montalban of “Fantasy Island” fame once sat at a back booth. Azar’s Catering has handled meals for musicians such as Kenny Rogers, the Righteous Brothers, Dionne Warwick and several country western groups.
Clientele these days include many loyal and regular customers. One older gentleman said he and his wife come in at least once a week to eat because they will see many other diners the know, unlike at chain restaurants on the south
side of the city.
“We like to eat here because you always see somebody you know,” he said to another couple.
At another table, a couple seated at the restaurant on Friday said they now reside in Greenwood, but they were visiting in Terre Haute and decided to return to the local landmark for lunch.
George said that kind of customer loyalty is appreciated, and the family atmosphere of the restaurant is what brings many people back. For example, one young family has twins who have “grown up” eating at the restaurant. The parents starting bringing the twins to the Saratoga as infants, and now the twins feel at home going to the desk at the front of the restaurant and getting crayons and coloring books from a desk drawer to occupy themselves while they wait on their food.
Cathy, who began waitressing as a young girl, said she has seen three generations of customers come through the Saratoga. Even former employees — some of whom worked behind the bar in their college days — sometimes return to show off photos of their children and grandchildren.
“We feel good about our family base,” Cathy said.
Waitress Leah Gray agrees that working at the local iconic business has been fun for the past 10 years
“The clientele is awesome, and so is working for George and Cathy,” Leah said.
The staff all have fun stories about working at the Saratoga. Leah said one hilarious moment came last winter when George told two fellows to take a large coat rack out to the dining area for the patrons. Cathy, however, saw the guys pushing the coat rack and instructed them to take it back out of sight.
“They kept rolling that thing back and forth through the kitchen, with George saying ‘Get it out there’ and Cathy saying to take it away,” Leah recalled.
Another longtime waitress is Betty Azar — George’s mother — who has worked at the Saratoga for 35 years.
Betty said she was hired by Kate Malooley as temporary help, and she planned to stay only for three months because she had a new job lined up at Pfizer. But she soon decided she wasn’t changing careers.
“I love the work,” Betty said. “I wouldn’t trade these years for nothing. It’s made me live.”
Alexis knows how she feels.
She, too, was on a different career path — studying to be a school counselor — when she filled in for her parents while they were on vacation.
“I decided I would rather be here, so I made the change,” she said. Now 29, and with a 1-year-old son, Jacob, and a 10-year-old stepdaughter, Kenzie, Alexis is learning the businesses so she can be the next generation to carry it on.
She is already well-known for making cheesecakes and other desserts, and she has mastered payroll and bookkeeping. Now, with the help of her father — who stays busy with catering and cooking — she is trying to learn the supply side of ordering.
“I cook on Thursdays and Fridays,” he said. “I love working in the kitchen!”
The most popular dinner is prime rib, while the lunchtime specialty is the breaded tenderloin.
Food preparation is important, George said. He cuts the steaks — and the menu points out that the size of the steaks depends on whether or not he is wearing his glasses. The cook staff also cuts the french fries and breads the onion rings — no pre-made food for the Saratoga customers.
That attention to detail, and the friendliness of the staff, brings the regular customers back, and is appreciated by new customers.
The longevity of the Saratoga is also well-respected by other businesses and merchants in the city.
“We’re excited for the Saratoga,” said Ken Brengle, executive director of the Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce. “The Azars are great corporate citizens, and we are glad to see them get to 70 years, and hope to help them celebrate their 100th anniversary when it arrives.”
Long-time businesses are vital to the downtown, where a renaissance is continuing to re-energize the community.
George and Cathy agree that the downtown has seen some positive growth in recent years. They did their own renovations to their building over time, and recently added some new artwork and signage to highlight the longevity of the business.
While a landmark neon sign out front on Wabash invites customers to “Abe Malooley’s Saratoga Bar - Cafe,” a new sign on the Fifth Street side features a photo of original owners — Abe and Joe — standing behind the bar.
“I like to give them credit and keep them alive,” Cathy said of her father and uncle.
Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.
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