Born in New Jersey, Marion Manzer moved to Centralia in the early 1970s. She started out waiting tables in the Yard Birds Shopping Center back when it was a booming department store. In 1999 she opened The Restaurant, located in the Sunbird Shopping Center. Her restaurant was very successful in that location, maybe even a bit too successful for her tastes.
“The pace was extremely busy,” Marion says. “The kitchen became essentially an assembly line to meet the needs of its clientele.” She dreamed of something smaller, cozier and more “home town.” Each day Marion would drive by a little place on Tower Ave, then called The Jersey Diner (fate perhaps?), and dream.
Even back then, the business was a family affair. Her husband, Morris Gall, who was born in Morton, worked at The Restaurant as well and her son, George Higby. Born and raised in Centralia, George helped as a dishwasher and learned how to cook on the line at the Yard Birds location. He later helped them open at Sunbird. A year after The Restaurant opened, he moved away to Seattle for school and then to Southern California to help a friend open a café.
Then, in 2007 The Restaurant flooded with seven feet of water inside. “I was devastated,” Marion says. At that point she asked George to return home to help her. “And we knew then that that location would not be feasible long-term. It’s just a matter of time before it floods again,” she added. So, after 18 years they closed The Restaurant.
But there was The Jersey Diner to consider. It was not for sale, but Marion made an offer anyway, and the owner eventually agreed to sell in 2013. “I knew this was the place where I would get to do what I had always wanted,” Marion explains. “Baking desserts, making food from scratch-based recipes and being able to connect with customers on a more personal level.”
Moving Forward Without Leaving the Past Behind
The family decided to rename the restaurant The Centerville Café to pay homage to Centralia’s past. “Originally the town of Centralia was called Centerville, and we thought it was the perfect name,” George says. “We couldn’t think of anything better – going from a restaurant simply called ‘The Restaurant’ to a name that reflects the beginnings of our community.”
With the desire to provide a small, home town feel, George explains that there was never any doubt about the décor. Having been in existence since the 1940s, the café, especially its inside, is an adorable reflection of that “mom and pop” diner. The main dining counter is original, but they did have to do a lot of work when they first bought it. George said it required a great deal of sweat equity to clean the years of layered wallpaper, paint and neglect from the place.
Now, bright and shiny like a soda fountain of old, The Centerville Café is everything the family wanted. “We opened The Centerville Cafe in Centralia because it was the dream we had always imagined,” George shares. “Our connection is to the town that my mom came to call home – Centralia. I have a great love for my hometown. We have customers that have followed our family and our restaurants since I was very young, watching my mother wait tables inside the Yard Birds restaurant.”
It was not just the customers who came with them when they moved, however. Three employees did as well – Maricela Dado, her sister Leonela Dado and Sandy Towne. In addition, they have been using the same bottling company, L&E Bottling Company, since they first partnered at Yard Birds decades ago.
When she opened her own restaurant, Marion knew L&E Bottling was the only business of its type in the area that would satisfy her family’s needs – they offered Pepsi and they dealt in bulk. But the thing that kept Marion with L&E Bottling was the relationship she has with their team. “They have always been aces,” she says. “Their service has, and continues to be, top notch. From Marcus, our sales representative, to Mark, our delivery guy, they have always been personable and treat us as if we are important to the company.”
Marion, Morris and George pay that feeling forward to their own customers, and they feel they fill a need in downtown Centralia, a need for a community to come together, to socialize and for neighbors and strangers to become friends. “We try to remember everyone’s name,” George adds. “It always made me feel good when somebody remembered my name when I went out and about around town as a young man, and I want to pass on that same welcome feeling to everyone I meet that comes to our cafe.”
Asked if he had always wanted to work with his mom or run a café in his hometown, George says no. “I always thought I was going to be an entertainer – I am a born performer,” he replies. “What I do today is something I would have never imagined. And yet, in a way, I am doing what I wanted to do – I am entertaining our customers and making people happy. It’s like opening your door at 7:00 a.m. to welcome friends into your house. It’s entertaining your friends, something many of our customers have become over the years.”
If you are looking for good food and some small town hospitality, be sure to stop into The Centerville Café. You can also follow The Centerville Café on Facebook.
The Centerville Café
111 N Tower Ave
Centralia, WA 98531
Monday – Saturday 7:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Sunday 8:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.