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Bill Knapp's restaurants close without warning

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Tracy and Dorothy Gilbert, who went to the Maumee restaurant for lunch, were greeted by a notice taped to the glass of the chained front door.

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Bill Knapp's restaurants abruptly closed their three northwest Ohio and 26 other locations yesterday, leaving padlocked doors and explanation letters for stunned customers, managers, employees, and suppliers to find.

Some Maumee restaurant employees, who were called at home by their manager yesterday, said they suspected Bill Knapp's restaurants would close. The chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in May, and employees were told Friday that shelves at the chain's food warehouse were bare, said 18-year-old Kerri Ahrens of Waterville. She has worked at the Maumee restaurant 21/2 years.

"I was expecting that within the next couple of months we would be shut down," said Lisa Hayes, 18, of Maumee, a two-year employee at the restaurant who "woke up this morning to a phone call saying 'You don't have a job.' "

However, customers devoted to the restaurants that served homestyle fare in Maumee, Sylvania, and Findlay didn't have a clue. Bill Knapp's was known for its following among elderly people and for a birthday program that gave customers cakes and meal discount percentages equal to their age.

"I said when I drove up, 'Where's all the customers?' " recalled Doris Loomis of Northwood, who once dined there two to three times a week when she had friends in Maumee. She said she was at the restaurant three weeks ago and found it as busy as usual.

"It's always been the same good quality, and everyone's so polite," Mrs. Loomis said. "The place is so clean. That's what I liked about it most."

After attempts to bring in younger diners failed a couple of years ago, the private chain closed 11 Michigan and five Ohio restaurants before filing for bankruptcy in May. At the time of the filing, Bill Knapp's officials said there were no plans to close the chain's remaining 29 restaurants.

Yet sales dropped 8 percent to 10 percent after the bankruptcy filing and did not significantly improve, officials told employees in a letter posted at the closed restaurants.

Officials for the 54-year-old chain based in Battle Creek, Mich., could not be reached for comment by telephone or e-mail yesterday.

"We are deeply saddened to announce, despite the tremendous effort put forth by our employees and a number of corporate attempts to turn around the business, all of our restaurants are permanently closed for business," stated a letter addressed to customers posted on the front door of the Maumee restaurant.

The letter said the company had no prospect for finding a buyer, and management couldn't return the chain to profitability quickly enough. A letter to employees said paychecks, reference letters, unemployment applications, and other information will be mailed to them. Employees with health insurance will be covered until at least Aug. 31, the letter said.

The manager at the Maumee restaurant left at about 10:40 p.m. Monday night and returned at 6:30 a.m. yesterday to find letters taped to the padlocked front door and the back door's security code changed, employees said. The manager declined to comment yesterday.

Employees of the Maumee restaurant wondered yesterday when they would be able to get clothing and other personal belongings they had left in the restaurant. Food remained in cases yesterday, condiments were lined up on tables, and the roadside sign declared "Salad sampler is back."

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