by Gail Hearne, Special to the Roundup
The original Piñon Cafe property was owned by the Ira R. and Goldie McNeeley family for 30 years, from January 1956 through June 1986. The cafe was named after the piñon (or pinyon) pine, which produces nuts long a vital food for Native Americans.
Ira and Goldie moved from Phoenix to Payson in the early 1950s. They owned 10 acres at the Beeline Highway and Airport Road where the Elks Club is now situated. In 1956, they purchased two parcels where Wendy’s restaurant now stands for $11,000. They built a house, service station, auto body shop and the historic Piñon Cafe on that property. Son Larry McNeely, formerly of Payson, operated the service station from 1958 to1986.
Larry said the Owens Bros. (later Kaibab Forest Products Co.) sawmill operated during this time. “For the most part, if you weren’t a rancher, you worked in the sawmill.”
Not many restaurants then operated along the highway. The Knotty Pine came first, followed by the Piñon Cafe and the Beeline Cafe. The Piñon had meat saws, a big walk-in freezer, and a long stainless steel dishwasher that came from the movie set for The Rounders starring Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda filmed in the Sedona area.
“My dad loved to cook and he was a heck of a cook. He made a lot of stew and put hot sauce in everything. Some ladies couldn’t take it. Mom made cakes and pies and doughnuts like you would get from Crispy Creme now,” said McNeely.
Daughter Pearlene McNeeley Haught, now of Star Valley, said, “The day Mom brought all her spices, mixing bowls, measuring cups, and utensils from the house to the restaurant is when we opened the doors. We served breakfast, lunch and dinner. I don’t remember the doors ever being closed. All the family Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings were held in the restaurant because there was not enough room in the house.”
Ira, Goldie, and daughter Jean McNeeley operated the restaurant from the early 1960s to 1974. Pearlene served as a waitress and helped on the business side part of that time. From 1974-1986, the McNeeleys leased the Piñon Cafe to several others, including Robert and Marjorie Jackson and the Orin Shears family. The McNeeleys sold the property to The Food Group, Inc. in June 1986. That company subsequently built the current-day Wendy’s on the site.
Larry McNeeley remembers there were no streetlights in the early days and says business was brisk during the summer and rodeo season. However, “after the Christmas tree hunters, you might as well close the doors and go fishing.”