STROUD — The rumors started circulating Monday at the downtown coffee shop: Dawn Welch, who had turned Stroud's landmark Rock Cafe into an international Route 66 icon, was placing it up for sale.
City Manager Tim Schook was among those uncertain if the news was indeed true, at least until the “For Sale” sign appeared late Monday afternoon.
“The place is huge for our town,” Schook said. “I wish we had five or six Rock Cafes. There are a lot of people who stop in our town just to eat there.”
The Rock Cafe dates to 1939, and according to legend, for many years the management changed on a yearly basis. Welch bought the cafe in 1993 when she returned to Oklahoma to oversee her grandmother's nearby property. Over the next several years, as Route 66 nostalgia took hold in the age of interstate highways, Welch oversaw the cafe's transformation into an international top attraction.
Welch first attracted headlines in the early 1990s, after she entertained broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, who stopped by, played with her 6-year-old daughter Alexis, and helped with the evening closing of the cafe.
In later years, Welch attracted an up-and-coming Hollywood writer and animator, John Lasseter. He visited the cafe repeatedly over four years to learn about small-town life along Route 66. Those visits are now legendary, capped off with the announcement by Lasseter that Welch had inspired the character of Sally in the hit Pixar film that followed: “Cars.”
Tragedy followed with a fire that destroyed virtually everything but the rock shell of the building in 2008. Welch not only rebuilt, but with the help of preservationist David Burke, they proved the experts wrong when they managed to keep the building on the National Register of Historic Places.
Time to travel
Now the business, including the original 1939 Wolf grill that survived the flames thanks to being shielded by a fallen refrigerator, is up for sale. The listing price by broker Todd Herndon with Herndon & Kelley Commercial Real Estate is $300,000.
“I've got an 18-year-old daughter, she's graduating high school this year, and I've always said once she was raised, I would sell the business. I'm a traveler at heart, all my life, so we're both going to spread our wings outside of Stroud,” Welch said.
Welch muses that the discussion to sell the business and move to California started with a teenager's dream to spend her college years surfing.
“She's 18, and when I was 18, I wanted to work on a cruise ship,” Welch said. “That was my grand idea, and I did that for five years. I had the time of my life — that and the Rock Cafe.”
Welch is selling the business but will retain control of the building she worked so hard to preserve after the fire. The business can easily draw a rush crowd of hundreds or thousands at any given time thanks to the large motorcycle and bus tours that stop at the cafe.
“You've got to get good at your game,” Welch said. “And that's what we want to pass on. It's all we do at the Rock Cafe that has made us famous. We have a formula we've developed and it works really well. We try to keep the historical integrity of a typical diner while feeding massive amounts of people.”
Whoever buys the restaurant, Welch said, will also be schooled on the history of Route 66, the road traveled by farmers searching for a better life during the Great Depression, the highway traveled by the legendary author Jack Kerouac.
“I'm going to try to pass on as much of this information as possible,” Welch said. “Route 66 is all about slowing down a bit. ... I always believed true identity and what people love about Rock Cafe is that you're going back to time.”