Hundreds of vehicles packed the large parking lot Saturday night for the final flight of the 356th Fighter Group as the 27-year-old World War II-themed restaurant's longtime customers converged there for a last takeoff with memories.
Ron and Kristine Cottle of Lawrence Township, who were married in the 356th's gazebo in 2009, were stunned Tuesday to hear that the restaurant was closing Saturday after years of slumping sales.
The owner, Bob Scofield, decided to end the 356th's long run after the establishment took a further hit with a power outage last month and burst pipes this month that hurt business.
Kristine Cottle immediately called Tuesday morning to make Saturday dinner reservations.
"It's really sad," said Ron Cottle, as he and his wife waited for the server to take their dinner orders. "It was a part of our family, our extended family."
Kristine Cottle said, "So we have to find another place to celebrate, but it's not going to be the same. ... we know every table we ate at here and who we were with."
In the crowded reception area, Sarah and Eddie Ziss of Jackson Township were hoping to get the booth where more than 10 years ago, he proposed to her.
She recalled that when she returned from the ladies' room, she was surprised to find creme brulee on their table. The words on the plate asked, "Will you marry me?" Then he got on his knee and popped the question. They were married several months later, and now have two boys and a girl, who have all visited the 356th.
Now the couple hoped to get that last taste of the 356th's classic beer cheese soup along with some prime rib and steak.
"It's a pretty awesome place," said Eddie Ziss.
Scofield, who was dressed in a suit, chatted with customers among the predominately middle-aged crowd throughout the evening. He expected the emotions would really hit when he closed the restaurant at 4 a.m.
"I'll probably get a good cry in," he said, his eyes tearing up.
Scofield said dozens of former employees came to the restaurant in its final week and volunteered to help him deal with the expected last crush of customers. He said he had 70 people working, when he normally had a staff of about 45. On Thursday night when it got busy, two longtime customers got up and bussed tables and washed dishes. He said the restaurant served about 900 dinners Friday night, more than nine times the usual number. On Saturday, they made an extra 25 gallons of beer cheese soup.
Scofield said he's still finalizing the details for other area restaurants to honor the 356th gift cards. He also has arranged for the nearby MAPS Air Museum to take possession of the restaurant's collection of World War II memorabilia. He said he anticipates that a chain restaurant will buy the building.
Page 2 of 2 - "It's very, very bittersweet, but I'm very humbled by everybody coming out to support us," Scofield said. "We were part of people's lives. ... it's an end of an era, and we had a great run."
Kory Nichol, the restaurant's DJ who started out as a busser about five years ago, recalled the Christmas parties Scofield would have for his employees.
"He had a big heart," Nichol said.
John Deagan, a former Libertarian candidate for state representative, and his wife Sharon were waiting for their dinner. The Jackson Township man recalled how Scofield would allow groups such as Stark 912 Patriots to meet for free in the restaurant.
Deagan said when his brother's best friend came home after a deployment to Iraq, they dined at the 356th. Scofield gave them a free dessert and lauded to all the customers the soldier's Army service.
At the next table, Ron Cottle said his father first took him to the 356th when he was in high school in 1986, shortly after it was opened by a previous owner.
Because he and Kristine were World War II buffs and loved the family atmosphere and view of the Akron-Canton Airport, they decided to get married at the 356th and hold their reception there four years ago. They recalled when Ron bumped his head against a torpedo attached to the ceiling while they were dancing during the reception, resulting in dust falling from the ceiling. When it was clear he wasn't hurt, everyone laughed.
The couple has since had all of their anniversary and Valentine's dinners at the restaurant.
"We're going to be here as long as we can, until they kick us out," Kristine Cottle laughed. "It was just the best place ever. It was just fabulous."
Reach Robert at 330-580-8327 or email@example.com.
On Twitter: @rwangREP