Phil Smidt's closing Saturday

97-year-old region landmark eatery could resurrect elsewhere
2007-10-18T00:00:00Z Phil Smidt's closing SaturdayANDREA HOLECEK
October 18, 2007 12:00 am  • 

HAMMOND | After 97 years in business, five owners, and couple hundred millions of servings of frog legs and perch, Phil Smidt's restaurant is closing its doors at 9 p.m. Saturday.

"Phil Smidt's has been a gathering place for wedding receptions, anniversaries, showers, proms and funeral luncheons for 97 years," owner David Welch said Wednesday.

"On behalf of my staff, we thank everyone who has dined here."

Welch, 60, of Naperville, Ill., purchased the historic eatery at 1205 Calumet Ave. from brothers Michael and Chris Probst in March 2002. But Welch said since that time business has not been good enough to support the 15,000-square-foot restaurant.

The Hammond casino diverted diners and their money from his restaurant, Welch said. The construction of the overpass from Indianapolis Boulevard into the Horseshoe Casino in 1995 "was the beginning of the end," he said.

"The boat has taken over the whole culture of our area," Welch said.

Welch Inc., the corporation operating Phil Smidt's, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in 2003 with estimated assets between $500,000 and $1 million and debts ranging from $1 million to $10 million. At the time, Welch said the bankruptcy filing was a financial step to give his corporation breathing room. But it could never recover.

The court dismissed the filing in July and "then it was open season on us and it was just a matter of time," Welch said.

Welch said he most regrets that the restaurant's 60 employees, half working full time, will lose their jobs.

"I wish there was something else I can do," he said.

Four years ago, Welch had discussions with the city about relocating to a different location. The Redevelopment Commission agreed to buy, demolish and relocate the restaurant and approved a bond issue to do so, but the deal never was finalized.

Welch blames Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. for failing to give it his stamp of approval.

"The mayor doesn't care," he said. "It's the Applebee's crowd in City Hall now."

McDermott said he regrets Phil Smidt's, closing but "the bottom line is we were bailing out a business that was struggling and there are other business that are struggling, and we're not buying them out.

"It was seriously considered, but we decided it wasn't a good policy for the city of Hammond. We tried to find a use for the building, but there wasn't one. We didn't have a choice."

Welch said he's trying to remain positive, and believes Phil Smidt's will be reborn in a different form and in a different place.

"It may be a dark time right now, but the future could be bright," Welch said. "We still could have a good future, but it has to be in a good spot. We've looked at properties in the area and in Illinois and they may go forward. We're hoping Phil Smidt's will return but in a different form -- a form combining yesterday and today.

"We need to draw a newer generation of customer as well as the older generation," he said. "We need our customers to bring their children and their generation in."

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