Paris Coffee Shop owner in Fort Worth TX retires after 55 years
The people waiting to be seated in the Paris café on Saturday morning were reaching freely back into the kitchen when the front door swung open every few minutes. The smell of coffee, pancakes, and cookies was in the air.
At the helm was 77 year old owner Mike Smith, who greeted each person who passed with a warm smile before telling them where to sit.
On his blue t-shirt, which he wore under black suspenders, it read “Retired, Retired, Retired”. The words were stacked on top of each other, getting bigger from top to bottom.
A couple of children came up to Smith and looked at him with wide eyes. They didn’t know who he was or why today was such a special day, but the man behind them did.
“This is Mike’s last day,” he told them.
Most of the people who walked in knew Smith from their time at the Magnolia Avenue diner, where he has baked an estimated 500,000 cakes and done a little of everything since his father owned the shop in 1965. They gave him hugs – Smith said he “didn’t refuse” – and many asked for a picture. They said congratulations to him or that they would miss him.
When regulars Brock and Maggie Stevens went to see Smith, he told Maggie, 59, that she gets prettier every time she sees him. Brock, 64, told him he loved him and Smith told him he loved him back.
Smith added that before they left, he had a pan of chicken and dumplings – their favorites – to take away.
“He’s one of my dear friends and I’ve known him for many years, and it’s just a sad day,” Brock told the star telegram. “But happy for him.”
Smith didn’t have much time to feel too sentimental and said he was mostly tired, busy with a crowded restaurant and a long line of hungry patrons. He came to work at 3:30 a.m. on Saturday as he did five or six days a week. He said he had to cut some ham for breakfast.
Friday was the last time he would come in early to bake his signature cakes. A star Telegram photographer was there to catch him as he led his successor Cleveland Arner the right way to bake the sweet cakes that range from cherry to peach to peanut butter chocolate meringue.
“With he’s around for so long, it’s difficult to let go of some things,” said Arner. “He really took me under his wing and taught me everything I pretty much know in life.”
Mike Smith told customers Saturday morning that it wasn’t goodbye forever, that he would be returning to the restaurant his father, Gregory K. Smith opened in 1926. As of Monday, the company will be in new ownership, and employees said there are positive results, changes ranging from renovations to extended hours to new dishes.
But the staff also reassured the concerned customers that they will still be there and that it will still be the dinner they met.
“Some of the food will stay the same, but we’re just going to revise the menu,” said Kay Mahanay, a 64-year-old who has been in the business for 33 years. “Only good changes – very good.”
Smith recalls growing up in his father’s restaurant and spending his summers cutting and cleaning vegetables. Okra was always his least favorite, he said, because it made him itchy. Even if he thought about it on Saturday, his feet itched, he joked.
He went to the University of North Texas in the 1960s and was trying to get his Masters in Administrative Management when his father got Parkinson’s. He then decided to run the restaurant so his sick father could focus on his health.
Gregory Smith died in 1971, and Mike took on his father’s role, helping the restaurant grow and become the breakfast and lunch staple in what is now the Fairmount District.
His favorite part of running the restaurant, he said, was all of the friendships he made.
“It feels wonderful that I have all these friends wishing me well and I’m going to hate to go,” said Smith. “But still – 55 years are enough.”
80-year-old Calvin L. Wilkes sat in the front cabin on Saturday with a plate of pork chops, eggs, and cookies. When he heard people talking about Smith’s last day, he cut in and said in disbelief, “Excuse me?”
Wilkes, who lives off Magnolia Avenue, comes to the restaurant almost every week, sometimes up to four times a week. He said Smith was a big part of it, and the sense of community and camaraderie he created.
“Everyone attracts Mr. Smith,” he said. “He’s very amusing at times because he knows how to joke and make you laugh. But it’s the sympathetic attitude that you can feel when you talk to Mike. “
One last farewell
As it neared 11 a.m., the closing time on Saturday, Brock began speaking from his table, trying to stifle the chatter of the crowded restaurant. He stood up.
“Hello everyone, can I get your attention for a moment?” he announced in the room.
He asked if everyone could put their hands together on Smith, the man who has become synonymous with the Parisian coffee shop.
The room burst into applause for about a minute when Brock went to give him a hug. A couple of people whistled. One person shouted, “encore, encore!”
Smith said with a smile that he was mostly embarrassed.
He finally retired to a booth as the restaurant began to empty and found it difficult to keep his eyes open. He said it felt like he remembered he was leaving even when he was too tired to feel emotional.
“The emotions are not there yet because I’m so happy not to have to think about Monday morning and get up at 3am,” he said.
Smith believes 55 years is long enough, he said, and hopes to do more in the future than just “go to work and eat and sleep and go to work” every day. He said he wanted to travel, although not too far from home, “so that I can get back to my bed pretty quickly.”
It was not easy for him to describe what it felt like when everyone came up to him all morning, influenced by his years of work and his personal touch.
It made him feel special, he admitted.
“It’s paying off for all these years,” he said.
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Jack Howland is a news and corporate reporter. Before joining Star Telegram in May 2019, he spent two and a half years as a breaking news reporter for the Poughkeepsie Journal in New York. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.