Take the time to enjoy a family meal at the Claysville Store in Hartsburg.
lIn the case of the Claysville Store, the old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” rings true more than ever. Located just off the Katy Trail in the riverside town of Hartsburg, the faded, red exterior of the family restaurant wouldn’t lead you to believe that the interior is overflowing with love, life lessons, and mouthwatering homemade food.
The little red car
Owners and husband-and-wife team, Mark and Laura Hooibrink, look at each other and smile when asked to share how they got to where they are today. Formerly owned by Gus Wilkening in 1940, the dilapidated old store in Hartsburg was covered in vines, had no floor, and was used for storage when the Hooibrinks bought the property from local farmers in the mid-1980s.
When the Katy Trail opened in the early 1990s, Mark and Laura’s oldest daughter, Sarah, decided to test her entrepreneurial spirit by selling Kool-Aid to the trail’s cyclists. Working in her little red cart, Sarah made over $20 this weekend, helping her family come up with the idea of starting a business in the old store.
After the flood of 1993, the family began cleaning up the building and its surroundings, repairing the floors and walls. “It was a family project and a good way to instill a work ethic in the kids,” says Mark.
“We opened the store in the summer of 1998 – Sarah and (her brother), Fred, were in high school, and (her sister) Natalie was still in grade school, selling sandwiches and crisps to people on the trail. Many of the customers remembered the children of Kool-Aid sales years before. Everyone on the trail was curious about what was going on with the store,” recalls Mark.
“In the early days, things were mixed up,” says Mark. “Over the weekend we served 15-20 people, trying soups and different starters; we weren’t really consistent because we had school and Laura and I both had full-time jobs.”
In September 2002, the Hooibrinks decided to take the store to the next level and test the market with a menu of fried chicken and all accessories. “It seemed like there was a need in the community for a family-style restaurant, and we decided to try it.”
Mark and Laura told the kids that they wanted to install a new kitchen and expand the seating so they could finish high school and earn some money. “Restaurants are a lot of work. We told them we wouldn’t do it if they didn’t stick to it. They proved to us that they are very hard-working young people,” says Mark.
A new extractor hood was needed for the kitchen extension, estimated to cost about $7,500, which the family did not have. Laura said, “I said to Mark, let’s pray about it and see where God leads us.” Through an acquaintance of the work, Mark was able to obtain a new hood for a much cheaper price. “It was like God said, ‘I want you to bake chicken,'” Laura laughs.
It’s what’s on the inside
“In the beginning we served about 20-25 people on Saturday and Sunday,” says Mark. “We had a lot of local support. Customers who came for dinner every weekend got to know our kids and their friends, because they worked here and eventually became like family.”
Laura says people she met through the restaurant even came to our children’s weddings. “We will never forget the people who adorned our doors in the beginning and who were faithful for many years.”
The Hooibrinks continued to expand and modernize the building by adding more seating and updating the toilets, kitchen and layout – while striving to maintain the original character of the building. Fred suggested adding a mural to the new addition depicting a steam engine arriving in Hartsburg in the early 1900s — a reproduction of an old photo that hung on the front in the original part of the store. The family commissioned the project to a local artist who is also a family friend. It was the perfect complement to connect the new with the old.
Today, Mark, Laura, their grandchildren and 30 high school students serve family meals on Saturdays from 4-8pm and 12:30pm-4pm. on Sundays in the hand-stitched, quilt-decorated dining rooms. “Mark will be 70 by the time we have them all out of high school,” Laura laughs.
“We tell all children that our main goal is for you to grow up to be responsible men and women. When they come up, they are part of our family. Sometimes we screw up, but most of the time we do it right. But I’m doing them a disservice by not teaching them to do it the right way,” says Mark.
As head of the kitchen, Mark deep-fries the chicken and prepares the ham, barbecue, potatoes, green beans and gravy. Laura makes all desserts from scratch. “And I’ll spice your beans,” she adds with a laugh.
“We’re not exactly on the beaten track and we know it doesn’t look like much from the outside,” says Mark with a smile. “But sometimes it’s the inside that counts.”
Mark tells the story of a carload of customers who arrived, took one look at the outside of the building and told him the women wouldn’t come in because they were afraid. Mark was standing on the porch at the time with a regular customer watching the interaction. He looked at Mark and said, “Boy, whatever you do, don’t change the front of the restaurant.”
As the restaurant grew and prospered, Laura and Mark looked for ways to give back to their community. Laura founded Families Helping Families, an organization to help those in need through community benefit. “When God directs us to a family in need, we have a benefit across the street from the store and give all the proceeds to the family,” Laura says.
It was the store’s 10th anniversary in 2012, and Laura and Mark were looking for a family in need. The following weekend, a man brought his 4-year-old granddaughter into the restaurant after she had just undergone a round of radiation therapy for a tumor on her spine. In what Laura describes as “God’s business,” the man’s granddaughter was the daughter of another of Mark’s colleagues. The Claysville Store family sponsored a benefit and donated all proceeds to the young girl.
Future plans for the store include kitchen updates and additional outdoor seating. “As far as the menu goes,” says Marks, “we stick to what we know.”
With the 25th anniversary approaching in the summer of 2023, the Hooibrinks are planning a special “homecoming” event to celebrate the family they’ve created over the years at the Claysville Store.
Mark says: “We’ve seen a lot of young people come and go, we see our employees graduating, and their friends and siblings, and we want to celebrate that. Even if I didn’t make a cent here it wouldn’t bother me because I love that three generations have worked here, that means more to me than money.