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Dennis Butzlaff, seated, came into restaurant ownership by chance but now calls himself a "professional egg flipper." He says Cedars Family Restaurant will eventually pass to his son, Luke.
Tawnie Wilson | SBJ
Dennis Butzlaff, seated, came into restaurant ownership by chance but now calls himself a "professional egg flipper." He says Cedars Family Restaurant will eventually pass to his son, Luke.

Business Spotlight: Sunny-Side Up

Cedars Family Restaurant has cooked up comfort for over three decades

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Cedars Family Restaurant owner Dennis Butzlaff never thought he’d one day be flipping eggs as a profession, let alone doing it for over 38 years. Butzlaff, who grew up in Wisconsin, found his way to Springfield after serving in the Air Force and getting a job at Lily Tulip Cup Corp. as an industrial engineer. There he met his future business partner, Jim Dillard. In their late twenties, the two of them decided they wanted to go into business together in plastic processing and started developing a plan.

Shortly after they hit their first obstacle.

“We went to the bank, even with these great plans, and they just laughed at us,” Butzlaff says. “The only thing we were able to buy was a restaurant.”

The two found Cedars, a small restaurant for sale on West Bypass, and purchased it under Cedars Restaurant Inc. for $140,000, which included the property. Shortly after the purchase in 1986, however, Butzlaff said they met another obstacle – the previous owner ignored a non-compete clause with them, took the staff and opened another similar restaurant in town.

With no serving staff or cooks, Butzlaff says he had to quickly learn his way around the kitchen. “I never knew the difference between over easy and over medium,” he says. “I’d cringe every time I’d have to flip over an egg.”

Butzlaff recalls those early days when he and Dillard would take turns each week getting up at 4 a.m. to make the biscuits. “We were very driven,” he says, adding that both of them, prior to opening the restaurant, would work all day and attend school at night and on weekends while also investing in the stock market.

Eventually the partners were able to hire cooks who taught them the tricks of the trade. “They trained us,” Butzlaff says, adding he is now a self-designated “professional egg flipper.”

Cedars is known for its comfort food and casual atmosphere, with menu items like Cedars’ Hashbrowns, daily specials and its most popular dish: chicken-fried steak. “The chicken-fried steak is still the best seller,” Butzlaff says. He added it originally cost $2.75 but is now priced at $8.49.

In 2001, Butzlaff and Dillard expanded, opening a second location in Sheid’s Plaza, now McLoud Plaza, on South Campbell, under Cedars Restaurant Management Inc. They agreed Dillard would own and manage the West Bypass location, which has since closed, and Butzlaff the South Campbell one.

McLoud & Co. broker and property manager Sandy Harrel says the 4,000-square-foot restaurant is an anchor of the plaza. “We only have one empty suite right now,” Harrel says, noting that the restaurant’s popularity helps keep the retail center full. Harrel, who started working for McLoud at that location in 2015, has become one of Cedars’ frequent customers, or as Butzlaff calls them, the “daily bunches.”

“It’s like family here,” Harrel says. When the restaurant is crowded, Harrel says she will gladly sit at the end of an open table, oftentimes getting to know the neighboring diners and staff. Cedars seats 140 and has 30 staff members, many of whom have been working for years.

“Our longest employee, Mary Dickey, has been here 29 years,” Butzlaff says.

Many of his staff also recruit family members, and he says it’s not uncommon for a lunch rush to have a mother, daughter and granddaughter all working together, or a cook and his kids in the kitchen. Butzlaff’s son, Luke, is often one of those in the kitchen learning the ropes. “He started here as a busboy at age 16,” Butzlaff says, noting that was almost a decade ago.

Harrel says this is a testament to Butzlaff’s leadership style, and points to how he navigated the COVID-19 pandemic: “He kept all the employees, and never closed.”

Butzlaff added that to stay afloat, he quickly pivoted to curbside pick-up, worked with Luke to transition from paper tickets to electronic and kept his staff busy doing remodeling projects. Even still, it was a challenging time.

“We’d go from making $200 every 15 minutes to almost nothing at all,” he says. “But I kept everyone working.”

The restaurant, with its train decor and mural by Springfield artist Farley Lewis spanning the length of the south wall, serves from 500 to 900 people daily, according to Butzlaff. Despite having to raise prices in the past few years, he says it hasn’t seemed to affect business much. Butzlaff adds that a lot of the restaurant’s success should be credited to Dillard. “He found the original location,” he says. “We would motivate each other, and that made us be more driven to be successful.”

Dillard retired in 2018, selling the West Bypass location to employees. That location then closed a few years later. 

“He’s living the good life now,” Butzlaff says, adding that the two catch up frequently to go sailing or play golf. Butzlaff, who says he’s a workaholic, isn’t ready to retire just yet, but that when he does, his son Luke will take over. “I have been stepping back more, running everything through Luke first,” he says.


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