Recent national and regional articles have touted Eau Claire as being “revived” or as a very interesting place to visit and point out many of our new, interesting and creative bars, restaurants, hotels and apartments, as well as a revitalized downtown. It is interesting, however, for an Eau Claire native and lifelong resident to look back at a few of the city’s “legendary institutions” that exist and prosper today.
Ray’s Place has been well known throughout the Midwest and, perhaps, even nationwide for many years. Located on the west end of Water Street, Ray’s is not really a typical Water Street establishment, but stands out as a classic neighborhood bar/restaurant catering to a wide variety of regulars, students, alumni and visitors to Eau Claire, and many who are just curious to visit or revisit this legendary place.
Ray’s has a great atmosphere and terrific food, although, appropriately, a very limited menu: its infamous hot beef and hot ham are the only two sandwiches offered.
Ray’s opened in 1949 at the same location and for years has had essentially the same menu and friendly atmosphere.
Today, it is run by the founder’s son, Dave, who provides the same quality food and beverages instituted by his father many years ago. Ray’s is truly a destination spot in Eau Claire.
There were few retail stores on Hastings Way when I was growing up on the East Side Hill in Eau Claire, but one I remember well and that has endured — and in fact is, in several respects, “legendary” — is Muldoon’s Men’s Wear. Muldoon’s opened in 1950 and is today, I believe, the only surviving owner-operated clothing store in Eau Claire.
It, too, has survived because of family (John Muldoon, founder Frank’s son, now owns and operates the store) and also because of John’s ability to accommodate consumer’s demands and technology. Muldoon’s huge, high-quality inventory gets sold at retail throughout the country due to massive internet sales and an inventory accommodating to all sizes, all represented well on a terrific website.
Muldoon’s still operates on Hastings Way in its original location. Muldoon’s can boast a strong local and area clientele with knowledgeable and friendly in-store service, but is also supported nationwide with efficient sales and service on the internet.
Sammy’s Pizza was founded in downtown Eau Claire in 1957 and soon became known for its great pizza and as “the place to go.” I remember Sammy’s as a young teenager and went there often with friends and classmates even through college years after sporting or other events.
While Sammy’s has moved a couple of times and expanded its menu, it has remained a high-quality, family-owned-and-operated great pizza restaurant and a destination spot for good food and entertainment. Sammy’s is truly a high-energy family restaurant that has endured as a legendary place in Eau Claire history.
Bergman Companies is another great example of a business adapting to new community and customer needs. Bergman Fuel was started by a Bergman ancestor more than 100 years ago, selling coal and ice. As the demand for coal and ice decreased, the company switched from an emphasis on coal to fuel oil.
Realizing a growing economy and a stronger demand for blacktop, Don Bergman added a blacktop business to the company. Don’s son, Bill, joined the company in the 1960s, and under his leadership (as a fourth-generation Bergman owner), the coal and fuel oil business was sold, leaving Bergman Blacktop as the viable operating entity.
Bill and his wife, Kathy, operated the blacktop company, but by the 1980s, they could see a new and strong demand for pavement maintenance services, including patching, crack filling, line painting, tennis courts, highway maintenance, and even airport runways.
Bergman Companies grew to eight divisions operating throughout the Midwest. In 1993, Bill Bergman and his company were named Small Business Person of the Year by the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce, truly reflective of the legendary institution it had become. The company has been sold to a competitor who has maintained the business, but not the name.
You will see a thread throughout these “legends” in Eau Claire history. I see the main thread being strong families that were and are interested in preserving and sometimes innovating a business that their family loved.
We hope many more of Eau Claire’s newer businesses are in the process of becoming legendary.