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A Secret Family Recipe for Success

A Secret Family Recipe for Success

  • Photos by Sadie Thibodeaux
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Taking the time to enjoy a family meal at the Claysville Store in Hartsburg.

In the case of the Claysville Store, the old adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” rings truer than ever. Located just off the Katy Trail in the river town of Hartsburg, the family-style restaurant’s faded, red exterior wouldn’t lead you to believe that interior is overflowing with love, life lessons, and mouth-watering, made-from-scratch dishes.

The Little Red Wagon

Proprietors and husband-and-wife-team, Mark and Laura Hooibrink, look at each other and smile when asked to recount how they got to where they are today. Previously owned by Gus Wilkening in 1940, the dilapidated old Hartsburg general store was covered with vines, had no floor, and was used for storage when the Hooibrinks purchased the property from local farmers in the mid-80’s.

When the Katy Trail opened in the early 90’s, Mark and Laura’s oldest daughter, Sarah, decided to test her entrepreneurial spirit by selling Kool-Aid to the trail’s bikers. Working out of her little red wagon, Sarah made more than $20 over the weekend, and helped her family spark the idea of starting a business in the old general store.

After the flood of 1993, the family began working to clean up the building and surrounding area, repairing the floors and walls. “It was a family project and a good way to instill a work ethic in the children,” says Mark.

“We opened the store in summer of 1998 – Sarah and (her brother), Fred, were in high school, and (her sister) Natalie was still in elementary, and sold sandwiches and chips to people on the trail. Many of the customers remembered the kids from selling Kool-Aid years earlier. Everyone on the trail was curious about what was going on with the store,” recalls Mark.

“Business was hit or miss in the early days,” says Mark. “We’d serve 15-20 people on the weekend, trying soups and different entrees; we weren’t really consistent because we had school and Laura and I both had full-time jobs.”

In September of 2002, the Hooibrinks decided to take the store to the next level and test the market with a menu of fried chicken and all the fixings. “It seemed like there was a need in the community for a family-style restaurant, and we decided to give it a go.” 

Mark and Laura told the kids they wanted to install a new kitchen and expand the seating so they could work their way through high school and earn a little money. “Restaurants are a lot of work. We told them we weren’t going to do it if they weren’t going to stick with it. They proved to us they are very hard-working young people,” shares Mark.

A new vent hood was needed for the kitchen expansion, estimated to cost approximately $7,500, which the family did not have. Laura said, “I told Mark, let’s pray about it and see where God leads us.” It was through a work acquaintance, Mark was able to secure a new hood for a much more affordable price. “It was like God said, ‘I want you to fry chicken,’” laughs Laura.

It’s What’s on the Inside

“In the beginning, we served around 20-25 people on Saturday and Sunday,” says Mark. “We had a lot of local support. Customers that came to eat every weekend got to know our kids and their friends, because they worked here and eventually became like family.”

Laura says that people they have met through the restaurant even came to our childrens’ weddings. “We don’t ever forget the people who graced our doors in the beginning who were faithful for years.”

The Hooibrinks continued to expand and update the building, adding more seating and updating the restrooms, kitchen, and layout — all the while striving to maintain the building’s original character. Fred suggested adding a mural to the new addition that depicted a steam engine arriving to Hartsburg in the early 20th century — a recreation of an old photo that hung by the front in the original part of the store. The family commissioned the project to a local artist who is also a family friend. It was the perfect addition to tie in the new with the old.

Today, Mark, Laura, their grandkids, and 30 highschoolers serve family-style fare from 4-8 p.m. on Saturdays and 12:30–4p.m. on Sundays in the hand-sewn quilt decorated dining rooms. “Mark will be 70 by the time we get them all out of high school,” laughs Laura. 

“We tell all the kids our main goal is for you to grow up to be responsible men and women. When they come on, they are part of our family. Sometimes we screw up, but most of the time we get it right. But I’m doing them a disservice by not teaching them to do it the right way,” says Mark.

As head of the kitchen, Mark fries the chicken and prepares the ham, barbecue, potatoes, green beans, and gravy. Laura makes all the desserts from scratch. “And I season your beans,” she adds laughing. 

“We’re not right on the beaten path and we know it doesn’t look like much on the outside,” says Mark smiling. “But sometimes it is what’s on the inside that counts.” 

Mark recounts the story of a carload of customers who arrived, took one look at the outside of the building, and informed him that the wives wouldn’t come in because it scared them. At the time, Mark was standing on the front porch with a regular customer who was watching the interaction. He looked at Mark and said, “Boy, whatever you do, don’t change the front of the restaurant.”

Giving Back

As the restaurant grew and gained in prosperity, Laura and Mark began looking for ways to give back to their community. Laura created Families Helping Families, an organization to help those in need through a community benefit. “If God leads us to a family in need, we have a benefit across the street from the store, and we give all proceeds to the family,” says Laura.

It was the store’s 10th anniversary in 2012, and Laura and Mark were looking for a family in need. The very next weekend, a man brought his 4-year-old granddaughter into the restaurant after she’d just completed a round of radiation therapy for a tumor on her spine. In what Laura describes as “a God thing,” the man’s granddaughter was the daughter of another of Mark’s work associates. The Claysville Store family sponsored a benefit and donated all proceeds to the young girl.

Future plans for the store include kitchen updates and additional outdoor seating. “In terms of the menu,” Marks says, “we’re sticking to what we know.”

As the 25th Anniversary approaches in the summer of 2023, the Hooibrinks are planning a special “homecoming” event to celebrate the family they’ve created over the years at the Claysville Store. 

Mark shares, “We’ve seen a lot of young people come and go, we see our employees graduate, and their friends and siblings, and want to celebrate that. Even if I didn’t make a dime here, it wouldn’t bother me because I love that three generations have worked here, that means more to me than money. 

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