Papa’s to celebrate anniversary as Culver's, county's longest-running restaurant
Some might think it odd that Culver's longest-running restaurant (and possibly the longest-running in Marshall County) is celebrating its 36th anniversary this summer -- after all, why not 35, last year? Or wait until 40?
But Brian McCormack, co-founder and owner of Papa's in Culver thinks making the restaurant’s 36th a big bash fits the "unconventional" identity of the longtime local favorite, which opened its doors this week (May 16) in 1976.
"We did an after-prom pizza party," he says of the restaurant's very first day. "That was our first run at it."
Anyone who's dined at Papa's (and few in Culver haven't, it's safe to say) has likely read the remarkable story of Brian's father Jim's involvement with the earliest American manifestation of the Beatles, printed on the Papa’s menu. A lithograph artist and painter, Jim McCormack was working as a designer for Chicago's Vee Jay Records in the early 1960s. There, he designed what would have been the very first American album jacket for a then-unknown rock quartet, the Beatles. Instead, Vee Jay sold the rights to the group to Capitol Records for $350. The elder McCormack, while scouting talent for Vee Jay, also advocated signing a surf-style group eventually also passed over, the Beach Boys.
By the mid-1960s, Vee Jay was out of business, and not long after, in the early 1970s, Brian says his dad had the whole family on an impromptu car trip from their home in the Chicago suburbs down route 30 -- then marred by only one stoplight! – eventually to Lake Maxinkuckee, opting for a spur-of-the-moment overnight at a cottage for rent here.
"They fell in love with the place," Brian recalls of his parents, "and bought a cottage on the lake two years later."
The $12,000 purchase meant sacrificing Christmas and birthdays for a while, he says, for a cottage and boat, but it was agreed.
As the McCormacks "be came fond of this cute little town," Brian's parents saw an opportunity in the form of a tiny, 20-seat pizza place then called Jobo's, partnered to the adjacent motel (today the Inn by the Lake). The McCormack family would operate that motel with little success for the next four years, tourism in Culver being pretty slim in those days, certainly outside of summer.
At the time, Brian was in film school in Miami and his brother had just graduated from high school.
"We had no experience doing this business at all," says Brian. "We just kind of stepped into it."
Jim and Marion McCormack had a number of recipes, and sons Brian and Jim Jr. worked nights, aiming to enhance their ever-growing knowledge of the restaurant business.
It was young Jim who hit on the idea of delivering pizza, which Brian says "completely broke open our pizza business."
At the time, of course, Culver had a handful of restaurants, but few "higher-end" options. The dominant eateries at that point were Pinder's and the Corner Tavern, and neither delivered food. Soon, Papa's pizzas were flying out of the kitchen and into delivery vehicles in town, at Culver Academies, and around the lake; Brian notes delivery remains "a big part of what we do."
"I have (Culver Academies) alums come back and tell me we kept them alive!" Brian adds. "Maybe to this day, we're the only one (in Culver) that specializes in (delivery)."
Jim Sr. passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer, in the early 1980s, and mother Marion and sons Brian and Jim looked to growing Papa's offerings beyond pizza and sandwiches. Brian's wife Carla joined the team in 1985, becoming a presence to the public as Brian and Jim "pounded out the food from the back door."
In 1988, after some consideration, the group opted to expand "to what we thought would be a tremendous opportunity" by adding 30 seats to the building.
"About 15 minutes after we expanded," smiles Brian, "we realized we were kind of chicken about this, as the line got bigger and bigger!"
So the following year, a whopping 120 seats were added, along with a bar. Prior to that, the entirety of Papa's had been limited to what is today the west side of the building, and the kitchen. Brian calls the restaurant's growth "a great family story because it was a little hole in the wall (when first opened)."
The menu also expanded to included steaks, ribs, and seafood for the first time.
Marion McCormack died in 1995. Brian, meanwhile, had left a central role in the operation starting in 1993 for a five-year stint with his own recording studio on the west shore of the lake, dubbed Galt Studios. In 2000, Jim Jr. opted to leave the business entirely and Brian and Carla bought him out that year. Today, Jim is a very successful internet developer, having created truckertotrucker.com to move used semi lifts and trailers across the country.
Galt Studios was a natural outgrowth of the family's musical legacy, says Brian.
"A lot of fathers teach their kids to fix a car of throw baseballs. Mine taught me to play guitar and appreciate rhythm and blues and jazz."
That sensibility, of course, informs the decor at Papa's, where guitars autographed by the likes of Eric Clapton and the entire Rolling Stones lineup, adorn the walls. Customers, Brian explains, have brought him musical memorabilia through the years.
One highlight: "My friend Tom Spiece brought me Woodstock original tickets and autographs from Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison," all of which also adorn the wall today.
Around 2000, the family erected the iconic "wall of albums" comprised of dozens of LP record sleeves from classic recordings of the past 40 years.
"That's been a real hit for people from that era," Brian says, "and just as much fun is that people not from that era -- students and young people -- who haven't seen the album art as it originally existed."
The Papa's family expanded again in 2003, when Carla's son Jason Newman -- soon on the heels of earning his teaching degree from Indiana University, where he'd gained experience in catering and restaurants -- came on board.
RESPONDING TO CULVER'S 'DINING BOOM'
Of course, the days of Papa's as Culver's primary "fine dining" option went by the wayside beginning in the 1990s, when a new era of higher-end eateries began here.
Brian McCormack notes Papa's had already enhanced its menu so, "Dad could have steak, mom could have fresh fish, and the kids could eat pizza, so everybody could be satisfied. Our business really consists of a large selection of wine and spirits, and a large seafood and steak application. We're lesser known for that, but the crowds that come in really mix up the menu.”
Of course, from the very beginning, Jim McCormack Sr.'s vision was never for low-end, "fast food" style pizza.
"My father had a love for a pizza business still in Chicago called Connie's. It's high-end, gourmet-style pizza. His intention from the beginning was to be the best -- not just to do this for profit or anything, but the allure of people saying. 'Wow, that's really something.'
"We think the pizza's still pretty good," he adds with a knowing smile."The recipe's been tweaked over the years, but every step was to get it one step better. We get people that call us and want us to ship it to them! That's what their memories of Culver are...the menu speaks for itself. It's been tried and true for so long."
Culver might have bid Papa's farewell in August, 2009, if not for a worker from Bennett's Plumbing and Heating calling the fire department when he saw smoke coming from the building. The fire destroyed the restaurant's office and did extensive smoke damage throughout, but would have ruined the place entirely if not for early detection and capping of the flames by Culver's fire department.
Amazingly, following 48 hours of virtually nonstop labor, Papa's was able to open Friday of the same week as the Wednesday fire, accommodating the surging crowd of diners in town for the end of Culver summer camps that weekend.
In 2011, Carla's son Matt Newman and wife Catie injected their backgrounds in the food business -- after several years in Colorado Springs and Portland -- into Papa's.
"We're blessed," Brian says of the move. "It brought a tremendous cohesion to our family, and a lot of skills. Matt is great at creation of new dishes and Catie is profoundly good at wine and spirits, and has pushed our beverage service up several notches."
A DIVERSE CLIENTELE
It may be a well-kept secret that Papa's stocks over 300 bottles of wine and what Brian believes is "the largest Russian vodka collection in Indiana -- a lot of things people drive long distances for. To come see it they're kind of shocked that you can get this in a little town like this.
"We've always played the cards that you never really know who's coming to Culver. We've had John McCain here. Everyone dresses in jeans in Indiana, but there's an invisible wealth (to whom) we want to say, 'Of course, I have that (available).' I have an owner's wine list for those people who say, 'Do you have that 1999 Cabernet?' and I say, 'I do.'"
Over the years, a host of notables has chosen Papa's as their dining destination, from the late George Steinbrenner ("One of the most gracious men we've ever known," says Brian. "Business was where he was a tough guy, but with people he was a beautiful man.") to multiple generations of presidents and other illustrious families of Mexico.
Families like those are "only one of hundreds of great Culver families that have been part of what we do," notes Brian.
CELEBRATING THE ANNIVERSARY
The advent of Papa's 35th anniversary last year didn't go unnoticed by the family, who considered a celebration then, but "were so busy we couldn't break through the summer of really large waiting lines. When we caught wind of Matt and Catie joining us, we decided to have our gala this year, for the 36th."
A party is planned for the 16th of June at Papa's, with giveaways such as a night at the Blue Chip Casino, $250 cash, and gift cards, prizes, drinks, and more.
"We want to kind of celebrate and get back to what the community has done for us," Brian explains. "We did it by invite on our 30th and had a lot of fun (with) music and a lot of friends."
As part of the celebration, Papa's has rolled out a newly enhanced website (indianasbestpizza.com), complete with blog, as well as a Facebook page. Included on the site is an efficient online ordering system which makes the entire menu available.
"This isn't always the most gratifying business," Brian admits. "But when the fire happened, I probably had over 1,000 people reach out and say, 'What would we do without Papa's?' At our 30th anniversary, I had people make the trip from all the way across the country to thank us for being there."
Papa's has come a long way, he muses, from the early 1980s when Carla was alone on the floor and Brian was out lending a hand, to today's staff of 25 serving diners every night and for lunch Saturdays and Sundays.
"We're not new," Brian adds. "We think we're a Culver institution, and we want to be that...we just feel lucky that we aren't really that place searching for our identity. We found it a long time ago and that's allowed us to push our level of service and excellence up, and that's comforting