This is not the first I have written something about Okagi's Restaurant. But past items have only been pieces of the whole enchilada (please excuse the pun). Here is the whole story as I have come to discover it:
In the autumn of 1913 Mamoru Okagi and his wife Marie purchased both a restaurant and home in the Village of Vermilion, Ohio. While no mention of where they lived or worked previous to this time is cited in any records available (to me) it is certain that both were experienced restauranteurs. For by 1919 their business had become so successful they found a need to acquire a larger building. It was just a few doors east of the eatery they had initially procured from Mr. John Carr and his spouse.
On May 15th of that year they catered a banquet for over 200 members and guests of Vermilion's Boat Club at the new location. This restaurant could easily seat and serve 225 patrons. Moreover it was accomplished quickly and efficiently This was no paltry feat for any small town restaurant of that era.
Although Mr. Okagi was Japanese (b. Fukuoka, Japan in 1880) and his wife was French (b. Bordeaux, France in 1889) the restaurant fare was strictly American. It was served family-style on tables replete with cloth table cloths, napkins, real silverware, and real china and glass table settings.
Virtually all the materials that went into making the operation a success were obtained locally if possible. The meat came from Starr Gardner's and George Naegele's market that was just around the corner. The Esmond Brand ice cream came from A.D. Baumhart's Rexall Drug Store - also just around the corner. The only products that came from outside of town were select canned and fresh fruits and vegetables which were brought in by The Weideman Co. of Cleveland.
All of the structural work done to the restaurant over the years was accomplished by local firms. George Becker and his brother Tony attended to all the brick and concrete work. David J. Miller with his father Jacob, who had built the Fischer block in 1913, the Phelps, Mattison, and Powell homes, and Crystal Gardens in 1925 (at Crystal Beach), provided all the general contractor work. And last, but not the least, a majority of all the kitchen and dining room help came from local high school and college students. More than a few of these youngsters worked a full 8 summers for the Okagis'.
Starting at the front row left to right: Otto (Okagi Restaurant's Japanese chef); Russ Vasbinder (who eventually became co-owner of the restaurant with Cecil Thomas), Nancy Tarrant (Emery), Paula Thomas (Cecil and Rose’s young daughter), Mrs. Russell (Mary) Vasbinder, Eloise Marks (Tyren), Mrs. Paul (Eileen) Naegele, Mary Emmerick (Robinson), Cecil Thomas, Mrs. Ernest (Marie) Koppenhafer (behind Cecil).
Middle row: Philip Tarrant, Steve Martin with his daughter Gerry, Clara Strehle Rosenkranz, Mr. Okagi, A.D. Baumhart , Mrs. (Francis)Baumhart, Mrs. Cecil (Rose) Thomas, Leonard and Betty Croll McMillen.
Back Row: Bob (Robert W.) Hoffman, Jim (James R.) Fitzpatrick, Russell Barr, Jim White (lived in the big house - 3rd - north of the Photojournal), Arnold Rosenkranz, Carl Koppenhafer, Harold Neiding (connected with fishing industry and eventually owned and operated Lake Erie Drive-in next to the bowling alley), Paul Naegele (a man of many talents).
The one person whose identity I'm not fully sure of is the young man in the mid left corner of the photo. I believe that it is Bobby (Robert) Enzor with whom numerous veterans in our community are well acquainted.
By the time Vermilion News editor/publisher Pearl Roscoe forever affixed the shadows pictured to glass plate (c.1925) the popularity of the restaurant was such that on most holidays and Sundays hungry customers waiting to gain entrance were given numbered tickets to insure their place in line. To call this a mere success is to greatly understate the reality of the matter.
Through the years a basement was added to increase work and storage space. In the spring of 1933 a black and white glass front was added. It was the very first (and only one) of its kind in the village. In addition to that another door was added to the front of the building making access and egress for large numbers of customers much easier.
Because the couple had no children of their own they took in, and raised, two orphan children - a girl and a boy. The girl's name was Mary Kenik. She eventually married a fellow by the name of Russell Vasbinder. The boy they raised was named George Kominis. He became a pilot in the military during WW2. Afterwards he became a commercial pilot, and had a very successful career. And life was good until the early 1940's.
In 1942 Marie, discovering that she was terminally ill, took her own life in the garage behind their Exchange Street home. Some years thereafter Mr. Okagi sold the business to his adopted daughter's husband, Russ Vasbinder, and their brother-in-law, Cecil Thomas. He then left his adopted town, and the business he had so carefully crafted with his wife, forever.
Mamoru Okagi did not return to Japan, but lived on the West Coast until he passed away on December 23, 1956 in Los Angeles. Today no corporeal vestiges of the restaurant that had earned a national reputation remain. It is now dissolved into a storefront shared by John Rupert's Edward Jones Investment Firm and the Financial Security Mortgage Bank. But ask around. There is still a person or two who can remember the wonderful Okagi Restaurant.
Ref: The Vermilion News; 4-14-33; Ancestry.com; Ohio Deaths 1908-1944 Record; California Death Index 1940-1997 Record; Vermilion Area Archival Society.
Written on 8/6/06 @12:12 PM - Publlished in the Vermilion Photojournal 8-10-06
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