Casey Fields introduced himself from behind an old-fashioned soda counter. The very same soda counter where his grandmother served sandwiches and milkshakes in 1951, back when the Palatka building was still called City Drug.
Fields, a fifth generation resident of Putnam County, said reopening City Cafe is his way of “preserving a little bit of history.” Although the space on St. Johns Avenue in Palatka has evolved through a number of businesses – and owners – the “little items like that are still here,” he said.
Twenty-two-year-old Fields said the space was a city drug store for about 50 years before the original owners “fired this up and got it going as City Cafe.” After three-and-a-half years, the cafe closed down due to poor management and remained closed until Fields began renovating last October.
Fields began working at the original City Cafe as a 14-year-old busboy. After six months, he was washing dishes, and by age 15, he was working at the grill.
“I used to come in after high school every day,” he said. “As a kid coming up at 15 (years old) in Palatka, you know what the reputation is: there’s not a lot for kids to do. This place kept me busy.”
The decision to reopen the cafe came to Fields while he was taking an introductory business class at St. Johns River State College in Palatka. But he said he wouldn’t have done it without Cindy Medlock, the restaurant’s former cook.
“I learned everything from her,” he said. “I worked with her in the kitchen, and she was just a cook then, but a lot of the recipes were hers.”
The menu, which features Medlock’s recipes from the original City Cafe, is what Fields described as “mom’s kitchen and ‘50s diner brought together.”
“Everyone up and down the street is glad it opened back up,” said Linda Hendrix, an Azalea Health employee. Hendrix, who moved to Palatka roughly 40 years ago, described the cafe as the type of place where “everyone knows everyone.”
Fields’ decision to reopen a downtown business plays into a larger revitalization effort that is currently in the works in the town. About 20 storefronts remain vacant up and down St. Johns Avenue and Fields said it’s been that way for quite a while.
“When (City Cafe) closed up, downtown just kind of died a little bit,” he said. “All these spaces are constantly getting filled now. It’s really good for downtown; it’s really starting to pick up.”
According to Dana Jones, president of the Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, the city of Palatka is “spearheading the riverfront development project, which is in the downtown area.”
“The Hampton Inn is going in on the riverfront; we’ve got a wetlands education center going in down there,” Fields said. “The city is really starting to work with everybody, and I think in the next couple of years everything is really going to take off.”
After their first month of business, Fields said they still have a lot of kinks to work out.
“We knew what didn’t work before, so that helps a lot,” he said. “Everyone’s been overwhelmingly supportive. It was hard work, but it was worth every bit of it.”
The cafe, located at 318 Saint Johns Ave., serves breakfast and lunch from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and a Saturday breakfast from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m., which was added at the request of the community.