Inside the last day at Munch’s Restaurant
Debra White served breakfast and lunch at Munch’s Restaurant and Sundries for 28 years. Owner Larry Munch had been threatening to retire for as long as she can remember, so she didn’t take him seriously when he told the staff last month that a sale was imminent for the Old Southeast eatery and the neighboring properties that had been in his family since 1950.
This time, it turned out to be true. And on Munch’s last day, Dec. 30, White was dabbing tears from her eyes between delivering platefuls of eggs and potatoes. “This is my family,” said the mother of six kids. She’d have to look for another job, she added.
Server Lisa Autry, a 17-year Munch’s veteran, watched the hours tick away until closing time. Permanent closing time. “I’ve been crying for two weeks,” she sniffed. “I’m kind of numb today. I’m sure at the end of the day, we’re all going to be.”
By noon, with two hours to go, all the breakfast foods were gone; the lunch crowd had to be content with ordering from a custom menu – hamburgers, chili cheese dogs, a fish or pork sandwich, whatever Larry and Joe Packard, general manager and part-time cook (alongside the boss), had left in the kitchen refrigerators.
“One of our regular customers that orders takeout got the last breakfast this morning,” explained Patti Redmond-Marshall, the cashier. “Larry signed the takeout container for him, and wrote on it ‘Last Breakfast.’”
This reporter arrived just in time to savor Munch’s very last chocolate milkshake.
Since the mid-December public announcement that Munch’s had been sold, and was closing after 70 years in business, decades’ worth of regular customers have been dropping by to shake Larry’s hand, take one last look at the funny signs and vintage photos on the walls, and sample the “Famous Munchburger” or the fried chicken recipe that Larry’s late mother, Clariece Munch, devised.
There aren’t too many old-fashioned lunch counters left in America, and the nostalgia for such places resonates like pangs of longing for those of a certain generation.
TV’s Guy Fieri visited Munch’s in 2011 and shot an episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, which kindled new interest in Clariece’s chicken, Texas hash, homemade biscuits and pork bellies.
But things began to change, as they inevitably do. In 2019, Larry Munch and two business partners bought the nearby Fish Tales Seafood House and renovated it into The Big Catch at Salt Creek, which is today doing a brisk business.
The following year brought Covid-19, and the egress of customers was accompanied by a mass exodus of employees – many of whom, once the pandemic began to subside, declined to come back to work.
For two years, Munch has been at his family’s restaurant seven days a week, open to close, working in the kitchen with Joe P.
Once he turned 68, a few months ago, he decided enough was enough.
“This pandemic put a toll on all restaurant owners,” he said as he watched his last-day customers tuck into their burgers and sandwiches. “Especially the old-school ones like myself. The younger generation, I think, can float with it, but for us old-timers it took the fun out of it. I’ve told my wife, and I’ve told my employees, that when it stopped being fun, that would be the time for me to go.
“And it’s not as much fun as it used to be.”
The group that purchased Munch’s acre of land, and the restaurant business itself, has not announced its plans for the neighborhood diner.
It’s conceivable, admitted Munch, that they might even re-open the place – familiarity, nostalgia, milkshakes, all that stuff. He just doesn’t know.
Whatever the new owners turn it into, it won’t involve him.
“I’m going to probably take three or four months and just chill out, do some fishing and relaxing,” he said. “But after that, I don’t know. I’m sure we’ll do some traveling, and it will not be as much hard work as it is now.” He and his wife own several St. Pete rental properties.
He enjoyed catching up with the former regulars who dropped by, and he frets that the employees – “it’s a family” – might not find new jobs right away.
Larry Munch was 14 years old when he began working in his parents’ restaurant. It has, literally, been his life’s work.
Retirement’s looking sweet, he said, and then he chuckled. “I’ll probably wake up in the middle of March and go ‘What the hell did I do?’”
January 1, 2023at12:33 am
Boy are we going to miss you! You made the best chocolate malts in town. My cousin and I have been coming once a month for 5 years. What will we do now???? Have some well-deserved fun, Larry! Hope your staff finds work. They were the best!
January 1, 2023at6:43 pm
Another one bites the dust. I guess I’ll have to go to the Chattaway or Trip’s to satisfy my nostalgic soul. Goodbye my old friend. Enjoy your retirement, you certainly deserve it. Have fun!
January 3, 2023at12:36 am
My son Christopher (Chris King) went to Munch’s all the time…He loved going there for breakfast or lunch…He always told me that the owner and employees were absolutely wonderful!! Unfortunately my son passed away almost 3 years ago and I’m sure they wondered why he wasn’t showing up as one of their regulars anymore. Thank you for always putting a smile on his face and filling up his belly with your delicious meals!!!!
January 3, 2023at7:42 pm
Wishing Larry and his wife a long, happy, and healthy retirement. Wishing every success and happiness for the entire wonderful staff. I enjoyed countless breakfasts with friends and colleagues before we all left for work with the children at Bay Vista, Bay Point, and Lakewood.Munches fed the south side for generations and will long be remembered! Thanks for the memories.
January 3, 2023at9:36 pm
Thank you for another touching story Bill. Living in Mexico, your reporting of news like this is my favorite way to stay in touch. How many hours do you work a week?
January 3, 2023at9:53 pm
Almost every day it has been my place where I not only ate breakfast but began my day with friends who over the years became a second family to me. It felt as though a part of my life also closed but I couldn’t be happier for my friend and Big Catch business partner Larry.