MURRAY – After 52 years in business, Hungry Bear Pancake & Bar-B-Q House will soon be closing its doors for good.
Todd Swain – who co-owns and operates the restaurant with his brothers, Steve and Tim – said their parents, Ronald and Elizabeth Swain, opened Hungry Bear in January 1970 at its original location at 1409 Main St. In 1988, the restaurant moved eastward to its current location at 1310 Main St. In a Ledger & Times story last summer about some of Murray’s oldest restaurants, Todd said it was a wonderful experience serving the community over the years and getting to know so many loyal customers.
“Knowing a lot of customers by name gives you that family feeling,” Todd said. “We are always getting people in who graduated from Murray State that always stop in to eat and catch up. At this point, we’ve served customers’ children and grandchildren. They’ve grown up right before our eyes. Some people would say we are a ‘Murray institution.’”
Todd said the restaurant’s last day will be June 26, and although it is still quite successful, he said he and his brothers felt that it is finally time to retire. He said Hungry Bear always shuts down for couple of weeks during the summer, but the difference this time is that they won’t be coming back. He jokingly compared himself and his brothers to Barry Sanders, who shocked football fans when he retired from the Detroit Lions in 1999.
“It’s demanding and we’re just at the point where now we want to enjoy our lives before we get too old,” Todd said. “It was a decision that’s been mulling for a little while, but we’re closing because we want to, not because we have to. It is kind of heartbreaking because we’re as busy as we’ve ever been right now. We’re just going to pull a Barry Sanders. He quit while he still had life in him, and we’ll quit while we’re ahead.”
Todd said Hungry Bear has several people that have worked there for a long time, and the hardest part of quitting has been telling the employees the restaurant would be closing.
“That was probably the single hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, was tell them we were closing,” Todd said. “But I had to tell them because I see so many places just ‘ghost’ you – just lock the door and put a sign on the door. They don’t tell the employees because I guess they’re afraid that they won’t stay. And that’s why I had a conversation with all of them. I said, ‘I’m giving you three weeks notice, and the only way we can get to the finish line is for you guys to stay,’ and I’ve given them incentives to stay. I’m not going to leave them high and dry.”
Todd said that although he is sad his employees will have to find new jobs, the nationwide worker shortage should at least mean they will be OK and land on their feet if they want a similar job elsewhere in Murray.
“I feel a little better now because of the job climate,” Todd said. “If people want jobs, there’s jobs out there. They’ve already had offers, so I don’t feel like I’m just kicking them out on the street.”
Once the Swains announced the plans to close, word got out pretty fast, Todd said.
“We were already busy and this just compounded things,” he said. “So now it’s a little more difficult on my ordering because I’m a high wire act here. I’m trying to not over-order (so we won’t have too much food). The increase in business has been pretty crazy.”
Todd said he and his brothers didn’t consider selling the business or the building, partly because of the building’s age. He said his family owns the building and land because his parents purchased it from the Burger Chef Corporation many years ago.
“We plan on just liquidating assets because, truthfully, the building has got a lot of age on it and if anybody bought it, they would have to bring a lot of things up to code,” Todd said. “There’s new (building) codes for all kinds of stuff now.”
Of course, the closure will be a big life change for the Swains and their employees that will be moving on, but Todd noted that many of Hungry Bear’s loyal customers were also shocked and disappointed when they heard the news.
“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “Believe me, it’s going to mess up a lot of people’s routines. It was just utter shock with some of them. ‘What am I going to do?’ I don’t know.”