Becky’s Cafeteria is fondly remembered among Twin Cities residents of a certain age for its chicken and Swedish meatballs, and of course its sour cream cookies. But what made it a south Minneapolis landmark was the “prune-whip and homemade meatloaf atmosphere” that was the brainchild of Christian businessman Clayton Sonmore.
The engineer-turned-restaurateur bought Becky’s in 1949 with his wife, Jeanne, and turned it into what AAA called “the most unique cafeteria in the nation” until its closure in 1986.
Sonmore died March 13 at age 92 in Denver, leaving a legacy of friendliness, service to others and the quirky cafeteria at 1934 Hennepin Av. S.
“I remember my dad used to always say he wanted to touch people with the love of Christ, whether they were down-and-outers or up-and-comers,” said Tim Sonmore, his youngest son.
Becky’s was the embodiment of Sonmore’s faith, featuring hymns played live by an organist (often Jeanne Sonmore) and a variety of vintage Bibles placed neatly among the antique desks, gilded cherubs and other ornate decorations.
“We’re serving God by fulfilling people physically with good food,” Sonmore told the Minneapolis Tribune in 1980. “Spiritual and emotional fulfillment come from just being able to sit down and feel safe.”
The Sonmores had little business experience — none in the restaurant world — when they sold their piano, car and war bonds to raise $300 for the down payment to buy Becky’s from the original owners. They had met at a Bible camp and, after Sonmore’s service in the Navy during World War II, had been looking for opportunities to provide Christian ministry through business rather than traditional pastoral work.
The restaurant was unapologetically Christian and never served alcohol; it probably would have struggled in today’s era of political and religious tension, his son said. On the other hand, “what they did back then was impossible. With no restaurant experience, [or] business training per se ... they took a failing restaurant that was in receivership and turned it around within six months.”
In its heyday, Becky’s was as inviting to families looking for a “prayer with your porkchop,” according to newspaper accounts, as it was to actors looking to relax after a show at the nearby Guthrie Theater. “Those New Yorkers love that prune-whip and homemade meatloaf atmosphere,” a 1966 Minneapolis Star article observed.
Sonmore eventually acquired ownership interests in other restaurants, and in a nearby commercial building, but wanted to explore new avenues of Christian ministry. So the couple closed Becky’s instead of selling it — not wanting the brand and its legacy to change under new owners.
They traveled repeatedly to Colombia, Nigeria and other countries, as well as to living rooms and churches across the United State, to discuss the role of faith beyond going to church one hour every Sunday.
Sonmore wrote seven books, one of which triggered its own share of controversy by challenging structured religion and encouraging people to explore their faith through individual thoughts and deeds, his son said.
Compassion was his guiding principle. Even as Sonmore was dying and a hospice chaplain offered to pray for him, his son said, “He turned to her — laying in his bed, he couldn’t get out, he was wheelchair bound, he could barely communicate. But he took her hand and he said to her, ‘Can I pray for you?’ ”
Sonmore is survived by four children. He will be remembered with a memorial service at 2 p.m. Monday at Lakewood Cemetery Chapel in Minneapolis.