Landmark Houston Restaurant Cleburne Cafeteria Burns to the Ground

Houston Fire Department was still on the scene at Cleburne Cafeteria this morning.
Houston Fire Department was still on the scene at Cleburne Cafeteria this morning.
Photo by Monica Fuentes

Updated April 26, 2016, 10:50 a.m. with interview comments from George Mickelis and new photos

An family-owned Houston cafeteria beloved by many has been declared a total loss after a fire that started last night. A KTRK report says that around midnight, fire alarms went off and Cleburne’s owner, George Mickelis, was alerted. When he checked security cameras via his cell phone, he could already tell the restaurant was filled with smoke.

About six of the paintings hanging in the restaurant were rescued, but many were a loss. That is especially painful, as all of the works of art were by Mickelis’ late father, Nick. “There were about 75 total paintings,” said Mickelis, “It was his entire life’s work. The place was set up like an art gallery. When we lost the cafeteria, we lost his major pieces. We have some works at home but his major pieces—the ones we wanted to showcase and share with everyone—were here.”

It seems nothing short of a miracle that George Mickelis, owner of Cleburne Cafeteria, is able to work up even a small smile in light of the devastation of his business. The parking lot is strewn with ashes, some of which represent dozens of his father's paintings, now gone forever.
It seems nothing short of a miracle that George Mickelis, owner of Cleburne Cafeteria, is able to work up even a small smile in light of the devastation of his business. The parking lot is strewn with ashes, some of which represent dozens of his father's paintings, now gone forever.
Photo by Phaedra Cook

The parking lot is strewn with ashes, doused embers and charred shreds of paper—all which used to represent the gallery-like interior of Cleburne Cafeteria. Mickelis, as he stood in the parking lot surrounded by firemen and reporters, somehow managed to be nothing but congenial, answering questions politely and even working up a small smile.

It’s quite the feat, considering he had just told his 92-year-old mother about the fire. Cleburne Cafeteria was established in 1941 and Mickelis’ parents purchased the business in 1952.

Workers Carlos (left) and Alex (right) would normally be coming to work at Cleburne Cafeteria. Instead, they were greeted by the sight of firetrucks and their burned-out workplace.
Workers Carlos (left) and Alex (right) would normally be coming to work at Cleburne Cafeteria. Instead, they were greeted by the sight of firetrucks and their burned-out workplace.
Photo by Monica Fuentes

This is the second time Cleburne Cafeteria has been destroyed by fire. The history page on the cafeteria's website states that also happened in 1990, the year after Nick Mickelis died. In that instance, Mickelis says fire started in an electrical cabinet. It was only a partial loss and the family rebuilt. This time, it’s a near-total loss, with nothing but the brick shell of the building still standing.

This news would be sad anytime, but it is especially so because of the timing. The Houston Press received a press release yesterday about Cleburne’s 75th anniversary. For one day only, on May 12, food was going to be served at the same prices as when the cafeteria opened in 1941.

Cleburne Cafeteria's roof burned away and collapse. A look inside shows the devastation of the entire interior.
Cleburne Cafeteria's roof burned away and collapse. A look inside shows the devastation of the entire interior.
Photo by Phaedra Cook

The cause of the fire is still under investigation and it is not yet known how long it will be before Houston Fire Department makes a determination as to the cause.

Mickelis did have insurance on the restaurant and intends to rebuild in the same location. “We’re going to try,” he said. “Nothing will change. We won’t have as many paintings, but we’ll try to put together something that looks pretty.” 

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