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The Suburbanite
  • STEVE KING: 356th Fighter Group closing bittersweet

  • Sadly, the 356th Fighter Group restaurant flew its final mission Jan. 18, and because of it, all of us have crash-landed in some regard.
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  • Sadly, the 356th Fighter Group restaurant flew its final mission Jan. 18, and because of it, all of us have crash-landed in some regard.
    The restaurant, which took off in 1986 at the south end of the runways at Akron-Canton Regional Airport, closed because of slumping sales for some time and, more recently, a series of plumbing problems. A power outage the weekend before Christmas, a banner time for any restaurant, kept hundreds of patrons away and, with that huge loss financially, was the beginning of the end.
    Without corporate money to buoy him after all that misfortune, Bob Scofield, the only owner the restaurant has had, was left with no options but to discontinue operations.
    Technically, the restaurant was in Green, on the border with Jackson Township. But the 356th's flight plan went far beyond either area and far beyond the other locales in the The Suburbanite's coverage area.
    It was a place that had a broad, broad appeal. In its heyday, it drew diners from miles away with its unique World War II theme and the fact the food was oh, so good. The meals from Monday to Saturday were outstanding, but the Sunday brunch stood out even more. There wasn't a better one around. In fact, there might not have been any as good as it was.
    The buffet definitely was worth overeating for, or for starving yourself beforehand so as to make sure you had enough room to sample a good deal of what was offered. But there was no way you could make room for everything. There simply was too much.
    Forget about that diet. Forget about the New Year's resolution to trim down and get in shape.
    Instead, revel in the fact that having too much of any number of tasty things to eat was a nice problem to have for customers.
    The theme of the restaurant, with walls filled with photos of soldiers and other memorabila of the war 70 years ago, also was something that could not be found anywhere else.
    The fact that it was in our backyard — a one-of-a-kind place that helped to put our community, and all of us in a way, on the map — made it just that much more special. The restaurant was a sense of pride, just as is the airport itself, which, for quite some time, has continued to set passenger records.
    Those were the good and bad times of the 356th Fighter Group's history. It made for a bittersweet feeling — actually, a very sad, teary-eyed feeling — all that final week after the announcement of the closing Tuesday morning. It was like losing a friend. It was as if a chapter in many people's lives had ended.
    Two diners, somehow unaware of the restaurant's impending fate, started questioning their waitress about details on that Friday night. She answered a few of their inquiries, then politely said, "Can we change the subject and not talk about it anymore? It's making me sad. It's making me cry."
    Page 2 of 3 - She wasn't the only one.
    Does chicken cheese soup taste better with a some well-intentioned tears in it?
    The fact that people jammed the 356th all that final week, particularly on the weekend, made for plenty of tears.
    The people who worked there, who had dined there, who had had family celebrations there, used the closing to take stock of their lives, as in where they had been, where they were now and where they were going.
    It was a seminal moment.
    Sometimes — probably, most times — it's not easy to navigate the future, especially when you aren't ready to do so. But it helps at least a little bit when the ride was so good for so long. As such, it's a good launching pad for the leap into whatever lies ahead.
    Sure, you can eat anywhere — at fast-food restaurants or any of a number of countless other places with a variety of themes, price ranges and ambiance, or lack thereof. And for that matter, you simply can gather around your kitchen or dining room table and eat at home, no doubt saving yourself some money.
    But there are special places — like the 356th Fighter Group for nearly 30 years — where food, fun, family and friendliness combine to make for a dining experience well worth your time, effort and money.
    What the demise of the 356th Fighter Group proves is that the economy still is not good, and because of that, it's a real challenge for any restaurant — even the best ones — to stay airborne. It doesn't take much to cause turbulence. It can happen quickly.
    And once it starts, it can be very difficult to stop. In many cases, it's darn near impossible.
    That was the case with the Fighter Group. Everything has its time — its life span — and the 356th's time was up.
    So what's next for the building that housed the Fighter Group? That remains to be seen, but the viability of a business is many times dependent on location — "Location, location, location," as they say — so with that having been said, it just might be that the building will have second life. The quick, easy accessability off Interstate 77 to, in particular, both the Greater Akron and Greater Canton markets could make it an appealing, viable opportunity for a chain and its corporate money — money that would allow it to weather the storm, both literally and figuratively, of floods caused by plumbing problems and cold, empty seats caused by power outages.
    That's similar to what happened relatively recently with the Harbor Inn in Coventry Township. Unable to make a go of it with individual ownership, it was reborn as part of a local chain. Harbor Inn's longstanding history, ambiance and location were simply too attractive to let the place stay closed for long.
    Page 3 of 3 - In a perfect world, that will be the future for the 356th Fighter Group.
    But if a new restaurant does land there, it will succeed only if customers show up. As mentioned, along with the calamities caused by Mother Nature, attendance was part of the problem, too.
    Maybe it was that even the Fighter Group's biggest fans took the place for granted. Maybe they thought that since it was such a rare kind of restaurant and been around for so long, that it always would be there, no matter what.
    It doesn't work that way in business, especially with eateries. The margin for error is way too small for that.
    For the time being, though, the 356th Fighter Group has been grounded. We can only hope that if it eventually takes off again in some way, shape or form — whether it's very different from, or very similar to, the old place, or a little of both — that it lasts at least as long and is at least as fun, if not more so.
    If that happens, then it really will be, for nearly everybody involved, a case of one door closing and another door opening, and thus a sad event becoming a less so.

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