Bev Eichelberger walked into the Bull Pen Cafe on Wednesday ready to celebrate her 60th birthday. She sat comfortably alone by a window while eating a small, nondescript bowl of salad and crackers for lunch.
Within 30 minutes, cafe owner Jackie Cockrell and Debbie McFarland, an employee since 1982, walked up behind Eichelberger and gave her a birthday gift and a kiss on the cheek. The gift was a silver-plated box with the word “friends” engraved into it.
Bull Pen regulars such as Eichelberger view the personal relationships and the cozy atmosphere of the restaurant as irreplaceable. For Eichelberger, the Bull Pen is more than an eatery.
“It feels like you’re at your mom’s house,” she said. “It’s comfortable, there’s no pretense, no one puts on an act. You go to another restaurant and you worry about what fork to use.”
Eichelberger will soon have to find another restaurant to call home. The Bull Pen Cafe will close March 31 after almost 60 years of business.
Cockrell has owned the Bull Pen since 1990, but has worked there since 1978. Last Thursday, because of a downturn in business, she decided to shut it down.
“This is very sad because these people are like my family,” she said.
For Bull Pen regular Everett Smith, 75, “it’s like losing my left arm.” Smith remembers eating there as a young boy with his father.
During those days, there was an auction barn with livestock for sale next door to the restaurant. The auction barn closed about five years ago. The loss of it, the rerouting of a highway exit nearby and the smoking ordinance enacted Jan. 9 are the three main reasons Cockrell cites for the recent wane in customers.
Columbia’s City Council members banned smoking in public places in a 4-3 vote in October because of public health concerns. Since the ban went into effect, some bar owners launched a petition to repeal the ordinance. Their goal is to obtain more than 3,000 signatures and turn the petition in by March 31, according to the Boone Liberty Coalition Web site. So far, six bars have received tickets for not enforcing the ordinance.
Before the smoking ban, on dreary days when people couldn’t work outside, “(the Bull Pen) would be so crowded you couldn’t get in,” said Larry Schuster, a regular customer.
Now, he said, the cafe is only half full on rainy afternoons.
“When you loaf, you smoke cigarettes and buy coffee and it attracts other people,” he said. Even though Shuster is not a smoker, he disagrees with the ban.
“Basically what the City Council has done is ruin a very special aspect of the community,” he said. “I hope they’re ashamed of themselves.”
Still, the smoking ban may have only played a part in the slowdown of business at the Bull Pen.
“In my mind it’s hard to target a particular thing as far as the reason your business is impacted,” said John Lane, president of the Missouri Restaurant Association. “There’s a number of environmental factors that affect your business, particularly cold and icy weather.”
Winter weather, however, was hardly a deterrent for regulars like Schuster. For them, the familylike atmosphere was reason enough to keep returning.
Schuster ate at the Bull Pen Cafe five days a week for breakfast and three days a week for lunch. He’s eaten there for more than 10 years.
“It’s a good way to break up a large city and make the city feel warm,” he said.
With the cafe closing, he said he’s going to miss the friendships he developed with the Bull Pen crowd.
“Some people I bump into and get to visit, I just don’t cross paths with in any other place,” he said.