Kay Kropac thinks of her Café Venice as the “Cheers” of downtown restaurants.

“Everyone knows your name—we’re like family,” says Kay, who recently celebrated her sixth year in business. That spirit extends to other downtown businesses, community groups and her employees—many of whom were with Kay on opening day.

Not only has the staff remained pretty much the same, the customers have too—there are just a lot more of them now.

Locals and snowbirds alike come to Café Venice for the home-made crab cakes, Braised Pork Ossobuco and the extensive wine list. They return because the restaurant is one of those rare places that consistently delivers delicious entrees in a welcoming, elegant atmosphere.

“We treat our customers as we would treat guests in our own homes,” Kay says. “Having the same staff helps because they get to know the little things that make a customer happy.”

The philosophy of the “customer comes first” began with Kay’s family, who owned the landmark Hellriegels Inn in Painesville, Ohio. For nearly half a century, beginning in 1952, Kay’s family served dignitaries, sports figures and everyday folk in the historic inn located on seven sprawling acres. Her family sold Hellriegels in 2000.

Following a divorce, Kay moved to Venice 15 years ago and into a house her family owned. She worked as a waitress at several restaurants including Café Venice. When the owner wanted to sell, Kay jumped at the chance.

Kay remembers the call to her mother, who responded with “Are you crazy?”

But the restaurant business was in Kay’s blood and she knew she could make Café Venice work just as her family made Hellriegels an Ohio institution.

The picture of the red, country-style estate hangs in the restaurant, reminding Kay of her family’s values. Over the years, people who stumble into Café Venice and had dined at Hellriegels will ask “Why do you have a picture of Hellriegels?”

That often forges a connection and a new customer. Other former Hellriegels’ customers have travelled to Venice just to dine at Café Venice.

Kay values tradition in her own restaurant, but has made changes over the years to the menu and décor.

“We keep current with industry trends and maintain our house favorites,” Kay says.

She added a Grilled Romaine Heart Salad and expanded the tapas. The Café now caters, and has wine tasting nights, which had to be expanded to meet demand. And several nights a week during season, the Café has live music, thanks to a customer’s bad putting.

“He said ‘my golf game’s lousy, can I play the piano for you?’” Kay says with a laugh.

And with a “sure, why not?” Kay found a great piano player in Gene McGowan. She has since added a guitarist, too, who, of course, is also a customer.

The Café’s footprint has gotten a little bigger, too. Kay expanded and spruced up the outdoor seating, adding the restaurant’s signature purple awning and a bit of outdoor elegance.

“That’s the best thing I ever did,” Kay said. She also added a terrace menu, available between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., when the restaurant was traditionally closed.

Kay says her business has grown substantially, especially in the slow summer months.

“It’s becoming more year round,” she says.

When the economy put a crimp on people’s budgets, Kay adapted by creating inexpensive dining options, including a business lunch and a “lunch bunch” special. After five lunches, customers who had their card punched got a free meal.

Kay believes part of her success is giving back to the community. She is an active member of Venice MainStreet and the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce, and donates food to numerous charitable events. She has participated in a progressive dinner party and other downtown events.

Owning a restaurant brings grueling hours, especially during season, when Kay will log 14-hour days. But it is a life she knows and loves.

“I am very lucky,” Kay says.

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