Florence Diner dishes up homemade meals made to order

Herald/Andrew D. Brosig - Owner Mark Katzenmeyer, left, helps clean tables while lone waitress Allison Sturgill takes orders and runs the register Tuesday at the Florence Diner. The timing was right and the opportunity presented itself when Katzenmeyer took over the restaurant late last year, one of three businesses he now owns in Florence.

By Andrew D. Brosig

Killeen Daily Herald

FLORENCE - You won't find frozen fries, pre-packaged burgers or pre-cut salad in the coolers at Florence Diner. You won't even find a microwave oven in the kitchen.

What you will find is fresh food, all being to order. That's the way the owners, Mark and Tanya Katzenmeyer, want it.

Mark had no background in the restaurant business when he took over operations of the tiny, store-front cafè on Main Street in Florence. In addition to the diner, he owns and operates two other businesses in town, installing, repairing and maintaining air conditioning units on heavy equipment and another, cleaning and restoring the filters for industrial air-cleaning systems.

"The only experience I had in the restaurant business was from traveling around the state, eating in restaurants," he said with a laugh. "The timing and the opportunity opened up, and we needed someplace good to eat in Florence."

This isn't a big place with tons of seating. Florence Diner sports maybe a dozen or so booths lining both walls. When you walk in, you head up to the counter to order, where you stand next to the cash register with a view into the kitchen through the window where Allison Sturgill hands customer tickets to Amanda Ware and Jason Lemmons.

Sitting at a small table near the front of the diner, Mark greets just about everybody by name as they line up. But that's the way it is here, where an order could be placed for "Marvin's sandwich" or "Betty's salad," as likely as someone asking for a burger with no pickles, with mayo and mustard.

His crew knows the people who come in, which is part of the beauty of the small-town diner. Open since February, it's typically the locals who come by for lunch, just about every day, Mark said.

"The community response has been good," he said. "At any given moment, the line is as likely to be backed up to the door."

Highlights history

Mark and Tanya took over the Florence Diner in December 2009. They spent the next two months gutting the eatery and redecorating to highlight some of the history of the small community at the fringes of the Hill Country.

When it opened, the diner was sporting new tin wainscoting - new to the diner, anyway - salvaged from the roof of an old barn and cleaned. Photographs which Tanya took in and around Florence were printed, framed and now adorn the walls, documenting the area the Katzenmeyers now call home.

Mark moved to the Killeen area with his family in 1976 after his father, Hardy, was transferred to Fort Hood. Mark was never sure exactly what his dad did on post, he said. All he knew was it had something to do with treaties and diplomacy, he said.

"He wouldn't talk about it," Mark said. "No matter who asked."

His father retired a full colonel in 1979 and moved back home to Vicksburg, Miss. Hardy Katzemneyer is now an auctioneer and runs a combination antique store and pet shop, Mark said.

"I stayed around here," Mark said. "I like it here, I always have. It's the best place to be in Texas."

Ties to community

Mark and Tanya moved their family to Florence about 10 years ago. Their oldest son, David, works with his dad in the air conditioning business while the youngest, Ben, is gearing up to start college at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Ben was a state champion weight lifter for Florence High School last year, Mark said with more than a hint of pride in his voice. Both the Katzemneyer children graduated from Florence and Mark retains a strong connection with the school.

"Ben was the first kid from Florence ever to go to state," he said. "Never mind winning a state championship."

His ties to the local high school are part sentimental and part business, Mark said. He buys all his meat for the diner from the Florence High School Meat Lab and Market, part of the school's FFA program.

It's important to Mark and Tanya to keep those hometown ties alive, he said. That's a big part of the attraction to the smaller, local eateries around the state and across the country.

Caters to customers

And making everything from scratch - from hand-battered onion rings or fresh-cut french fries by the order to chicken salad made fresh daily to the diner's signature, hand-cut ribbon fries, sort of a cross between a french fry and a potato chip, Mark said - takes more time. It's definitely not the easiest, or the least expensive, way to do things.

"It's a pain in the ...," he said, bluntly.

But it harkens back to a time when good, home-cooked food was the norm, Mark said.

It's what their customers want and it's what they want to serve, he added.

"This place has been a restaurant for about 80 years, all the way back to the time when there was a livery stable out the back door," Mark said. "We're a local meeting place for people.

"We deal primarily with local people. Most of these people have been in and out of this restaurant for 50 years."

Contact Andrew D. Brosig at abrosig@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7469.

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