Brand Echoes – Remember Bill Knapp’s?

August 20th, 2002, small midwestern restaurant chain Bill Knapp’s announced it was closing.

Last week, while in Ann Arbor, I took my Dad shopping at Kroger’s as is our habit. In the bakery aisle, a familiar logo: Bill Knapp’s

The price on these “glazed dunkers” was reduced because they were at their sell-by date. Still, they were tasty and about what I remembered.

These weren’t from a REAL Bill Knapp’s restaurant. The box says, “distributed by Thaw and Sell Solutions, Ltd.” out of Saline, MI.

(for non-Michigander’s, that’s pronounced “sah-LEEN”)

From 1948 to 2002, Bill Knapp’s was an institution in Michigan and Ohio, plus some outposts in Florida (perfect for sentimental snowbirds). The food was good, the help, helpful.

The six inch round chocolate “celebration cakes” were enjoyed and worn by both of my sons on their first birthdays.

There’s a good Wikipedia post on the history of the chain, and a nice article from Bill Knapp’s “hometown” newspaper in Battle Creek, MI on the second anniversary of its closing.

The chocolate cake has been available in freezer cases for a while from metro Detroit-based Awrey bakeries.

The Kroger’s that I bought these dunkers from is just a quarter mile away from the Bill Knapp’s location that was my family’s frequent haunt when I was younger.

Now, it is Zingerman’s Roadhouse, a restaurant extension of the famed Ann Arbor Deli. Like Bill Knapp’s, the Roadhouse does not serve breakfast.

In 2000 or 2001, I remember coming to Ann Arbor after my Dad was recovering from emergency surgery. After visiting him at St Joe’s, my Mom and I went to the nearby Bill Knapp’s at Carpenter and Washtenaw. We sat down, ordered and while we were waiting, a part of the suspended ceiling fell in, leaving dust and insulation scatter around the dining area, and us. We laughed it off and left (and went to Big Boy’s).

That ceiling wasn’t the only thing falling in on Bill Knapp’s. A year or so later, the chain was closed.

August 20, 2002, the letter they sent out was simple. They couldn’t make it. They were closing.

I moved away from Michigan for a few years in the 80’s, moved back and then “really” left in ’93. Still, I’ve been an interested observer from afar regarding many things of my much-loved home state.

From that perspective, I’ve pondered whether Bill Knapp’s might have weathered the initial downturn in the late 90’s better if it hadn’t tried so hard to “update” their interiors and menu in the late 90’s. While they wrestled with a changing market and an aging customer base, today’s rediscovered yearning for scratch-made comfort food might have made for a return to success.

Or maybe not. Nothing lasts forever.

But we have the brand echoes of donuts and cake and, for some of us, mostly good memories.


About sehanley

Musician, journalist, teacher, technologist, consultant & former NPR station manager. A media and entertainment professional, journalist, entrepreneur, technology advocate, educator, student, mentor, manager, and media, musical and theatrical performer. Voice talent and coach for music and spoken word. I also act and sing (mostly jazz, but a lot of experience with choral, classical and musical theater, too). Brass instruments, too, but my AF ofM card lapsed years ago. Heard on the national jazz service, PubJazz, and in the Pittsburgh market on WZUM/Pittsburgh Jazz Channel. I also teach college level courses in media and journalism. I managed the leading NPR/public radio station in Pittsburgh, PA for 16 years, a few years later was GM of the NPR station WBHM in Birmingham, AL. I served for six very busy years on the NPR Board of Directors and have done much volunteer service for national and local organizations in the communities I have been privileged to live and work in. Former NPR Board Member, former President of the Pittsburgh Radio Organization, sometime musician, relentless technology advocate. Opinions expressed are not the viewpoints of any employer or affiliation past or present.
This entry was posted in Ann Arbor, Awrey, Battle Creek, Bill Knapp's, Cake, Chocolate, Michigan, Zingerman's. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Brand Echoes – Remember Bill Knapp’s?

  1. Anonymous says:

    I worked at the Bill Knapps in Ypsilanti in 1980 -83 as a busser continued on with the company reparing and installing computers in some of their stores…loved working there and stayed until 1993 when I was not enjoying the way the company was going and took another job …moved to Florida in 1999 and was sadden to hear that it closed it's doors in 2002…have many fond memories of working there and have many life long friendships that were formed while working there …some of my friends even met their spouses there ..what a great place it was …too bad they did just what you said in trying to be more like the Applebee's and Chili's…should have stuck to the basic menu and it may still be around….sure do miss the fun times working there but the memories will always remain …

  2. Scott Hanley says:

    There is now a "Bill Knapps LLC" which seems to be coordinating the revival of the baked goods… quite the return of a good restaurant, but worthy of note.

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