Daren Kelly has lived quite a few lifetimes for someone his age, so maybe it’s fitting the 33-year-old owns the historic Elk Cafe & Soda Fountain.
Kelly bought the Browne’s Addition pharmacy-turned-eatery last year. Since then, he’s spruced it up, widened the menu offerings to include burgers and more pizzas and learned the ins-and-outs of ice cream bar tending.
“Someone now will ask for, say, a New York egg cream, but if someone ordered that a year ago, I’d say, ‘What’s that?”’ Kelly said.
Some of it came naturally, though. He was raised in a restaurant family. His father, Don Kelly, started the drive-in now called Pop Off’s and later owned a downtown A&W; restaurant. Kelly remembers dressing up as the “Root Bear” and mingling with customers as a kid.
After Expo ‘74, things slowed at the A&W.; His father sold it and became part owner of four Zip’s Drive Ins. When Kelly was older, his father pulled out of the partnership so the family could own two of the Zip’s outright. Kelly and brother Dennis managed them. His parents are now retired, and Dennis owns three Zip’s locations. Another brother, Dave, owns a window cleaning service.
So, entrepreneurship was in his genes. But Kelly saw some rough times in between wearing the Root Bear suit and owning The Elk. He moved to Seattle in 1982, but without a career direction. He started a series of jobs, ranging from waiting tables to selling real estate.
“I did a little of everything for everybody,” Kelly said. He also managed to build up a sizeable debt.
After seven years, he moved back in with his parents, determined to erase that debt. He drove a truck, delivering food products all over Central and Eastern Washington.
A couple years later, he was debt-free. “It was a good feeling… secure,” Kelly said.
He set his sights higher than just security, though. Kelly wanted to be his own boss. He started business classes at Spokane Falls Community College in 1991. That same year he and his mother, Diane, started a bakery at the Spokane Marketplace. Later, Kelly bought the Taco Taco restaurant on the North Side. He ran that for two years before selling it.
Kelly’s interest in The Elk developed after he bought a house in Browne’s Addition and visited the cafe. Then-owner Rebecca Lawrence had turned the longtime pharmacy at Pacific and Cannon into a hip, Bohemian cafe.
When the restaurant went up for sale last year, Kelly snatched it up. “I was familiar with it, and the atmosphere was terrific.”
He said he improved service there, but was afraid to do much else. “I was deathly afraid of change.”
After about six months, the fear passed. Kelly added burgers and a wider variety of pizzas while still keeping the veggy fare the place had become known for. He took down the vintage placards that decorated the cafe, but plans to restore some later.
“I wanted to get away from that cluttered look,” Kelly said. “It was too much for too long.”
Now The Elk has a neat but casual appearance that appeals to grunge kids drinking espresso, lawyers stopping in for a power lunch and seniors who want an old-fashioned milkshake made by hand. Folksy types still feel free to read bulletins about yoga classes or peruse an alternative magazine. But it’s also a place where business people go to have a quick bite and relax to the strains of Louis Armstrong.
To an extent, Kelly let the place create itself. “(The crowd) is just everybody,” Kelly said. “In all the ads we do, we never target a specific group. We don’t discriminate… everybody’s money is green.”
For some, the place is a destination. Others just mosey in from the neighborhood. Dennis Gleason lives just across the street from The Elk, and comes in every day.
“I think the place is very casual,” Gleason said. “Basically, they don’t bother you if just want to take your time and read the paper. You’re not rushed through the door. … It mellows me right out.”
That casualness is staple to The Elk’s existence. Just to the west sits the Cannon Street Grill, a restaurant known for the culinary wizardry of owner/chef Jerry Schrader.
“It’s more of a white-linen service place … gourmet,” Kelly said of the Grill. “We have excellent food, but I’d hesitate to call it gourmet.”
Schrader said that distinction is what will hopefully allow both to thrive. “That’s the idea (to do things differently), but the customer has to make that judgment.”
Since buying the place, Kelly has more at stake now than just dollars. He’s gotten pretty attached to the nostalgia of The Elk, and its history that dates back to the 1890s.
“The history and the flavor of the place are really what it’s all about,” he said. “It’s fun.”
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