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Closing of nearly 60-year-old Rush Cafe a loss for community east of Colorado Springs

February 23, 2018 Updated: February 24, 2018 at 7:19 am
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The sun sets on Colorado 94 as the Rush Cafe hosts its last all-you-can-eat dinner Thursday before it closes in tiny Rush. The cafe, opened in 1959 by Woody and Betty Thieman, is closing after 59 years. (Nadav Soroker, The Gazette)

The Rush Cafe has been more than a place to eat.

"It's a place where people could come and see each other, come in every Tuesday for doughnuts or a cinnamon roll, enjoy each other's company and shoot the breeze," said Willis Kelly, who owns the cafe with his wife, Sherie.

The last meals will be served Wednesday at the nearly 60-year-old business, along Colorado 94 in tiny Rush, about 30 miles east of Colorado Springs. For the ranchers and other residents who were the cafe's regulars, it will mean no more Thursday night all-you-can-eat specials. No chance to fill up with the half-pound Big Rushin burger or savor the homemade soups and pies.

"It's going to be hard to even think of it being gone," Curtis Bandt said as he finished his lunch the other day. He has been coming to the cafe since he was a kid growing up on his grandparents' ranch. While he now lives north of Peyton, he owns land in the area and still drops in on the cafe.

"It's been here my whole life," said Bandt, who loves the cafe's pies - and the homemade food in general. "It's hard to find homemade food anymore," he said.

For ranchers whose neighbors might be miles away, the cafe has been an essential community hub, he said.

"When I was younger, everybody had big ranches out here," Bandt said. "Your only gathering place was a place like this or church."

The area is changing, though, Willis Kelly said. And that has hurt business. "A lot of the ranchers have died off, and the children don't want to stay on the ranch, so they just sell it off. People out here now aren't doing business like they used to."

The main reason for closing, though, is that he and his wife are "old and tired," Willis said. "I'm 73 years old, and I'm done. I want to go fishing."

The sun sets down CO-94 as the Rush Cafe hosts its last all-you-can-eat dinner before it closes in Rush, Colorado Wednesday, February 21, 2018. The cafe, opened in 1959 by Woody and Betty Thieman, is closing after 59 years. (Nadav Soroker, The Gazette) 

Sherie's uncle and aunt, Woody and Betty Thieman, opened the cafe in 1959. They sold it to Sherie's parents, Orville and Beverley "Boots" Thieman, three years later. In 1985, Willis and Sherie married and took over the business, leasing it for a year before buying. A couple of years later, they remodeled the cafe, expanding the dining space from 400 square feet to about 1,000.

"When we bought the place, we both cooked," Willis said. "Sherie did a lot of cooking and waitressing."

They've taken a less active role in recent years, slowed by age and health problems. They had one employee when they took over; after expanding, they had seven to 10 during peak periods.

From the start, they've tried not to stray far from the menu whipped up by Sherie's mother. "We did all of our soups homemade," Sherie said. "We made all our salads from scratch."

Sherie and Willis Kelly serve up dinner for themselves at their final all-you-can-eat dinner at the Rush Cafe before they close in Rush, Colorado Wednesday, February 21, 2018. The Kelly's grabbed a table to eat at and were quickly joined by friends. (Nadav Soroker, The Gazette) 

For a lot of customers looking back, Willis said, "their favorite time was probably St. Paddy's Day. That was always a big day for us. We were pretty famous for our corned beef and cabbage."

They've looked for buyers and are still open to it, Willis said, but there's been little interest. The Kellys' son, Cade, and his wife tried taking over the business a few years ago, "but it just turned out that it wasn't something they wanted to do," Willis said.

Though the restaurant business is a tough one, "it's been a wonderful experience," he said. "It's been a fair living. We didn't get rich, but we had a good life."

Despite his dream of kicking back and fishing, Willis said it is tough to think of life without the Rush Cafe.

"We're realizing that most of our friends are our customers," Sherie said. "We're just used to seeing each other here, and how we'll stay in contact and stuff is a question that keeps arising."

Their home is just yards from the cafe, so it won't be a matter of out of sight, out of mind.

"I can't imagine sitting at home," Sherie said, "and not being able to run over and see somebody."

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