Washougal Times owners to celebrate Heller’s Restaurant milestones

March events will honor what would have been the former restaurant’s 50th anniversary, founder’s 97th birthday

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Eldon Heller built the Heller’s Restaurant building in 1974 and sold it to his son and daughter-in-law, Randy and Reta, in 1987. (Post-Record file photo)

One day during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Washougal Times owner Ben Jackson found an old newspaper clipping during an indoor construction project. The news clipping featured an article about the grand opening of Heller’s Restaurant at 1826 “E” St., now home to Jackson’s Washougal Times restaurant and bar.

“As I’m blowing the dust off of it, I’m reading all the pricing and looking at all the menu items,” he said. “Then I looked up in the top left corner, (which contained) the date of the newspaper, and I said, ‘Wow, they’re so close to turning 50. We’re going to have to remember that in 2024. We’re going to celebrate that, because that’s a big deal.’”

Jackson made good on his promise to himself. Washougal Times will honor the Heller family’s legacy with a celebration event Thursday through Saturday, March 14-16, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Heller’s Restaurant, which opened in the current Washougal Times building March 27, 1974, as well as the birthday of original owner, Eldon Heller, who died in 2008, and would have turned 97 on March 16.

“I probably would not have put it together if I had not found that article,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t like the Hellers were coming down here and saying, ‘Eldon built this place in 1974.’ Unearthing that newspaper clipping put the idea in the back of our heads to say, ‘This needs to be celebrated. It’s too cool of a piece of history to not have people in on. People need to know about it.’”

The celebration will kick off with what Jackson calls “Heller’s Employee Appreciate Appreciation Day” on Thursday, March 14.

“The goal is to gather every single employee that ever worked there,” Jackson said.

The former Heller’s employees will get discounted food and drinks and the restaurant’s former owners, Randy and Reta Heller, will be there.

“The idea for me is to reconnect with some of those people, give them an opportunity to reconnect and, more importantly, give Randy and Reta an opportunity to reconnect with them,” Jackson said. “I think any small business owner would say they miss the people, the employees, the most. I feel like it could be one of the more important nights of the three nights, from my perspective.”

On Friday, March 15, the restaurant will offer a special menu with “throwback” items that pay tribute to some of Heller’s Restaurant’s most popular offerings, including the prime rib dinner.

“We’ve always kind of rode those coattails of the Hellers with the prime rib,” Jackson said, “but we will splash it with a seafood platter type of thing.”

The celebration will conclude with “a big birthday party” on Saturday, March 16.

“One of the things about the 16th — one of the reasons we chose that date — is because Randy’s father, Eldon, the man who built the building, would have turned 97 years old on that day,” Jackson said. “It’s pretty cool that we can celebrate Heller’s turning 50 and Eldon turning 97.”

In addition, the Washougal Times’ back bar will be christened as “Eldon’s Bar” in honor of the original owner.

“The bar that Eldon built, we’ve always just referred to it as the ‘back bar,’” Jackson said. “One of the ways we can commem==orate Heller’s is to turn that bar into ‘Eldon’s Bar.’ We have a big sign carved out of wood that says ‘Eldon’s Bar’ that will hang on the wall. It’s about 6 feet long; it really fills the wall. Plus, we have pictures of both Eldon and (his wife) Colleene and are putting those up. Anyone with the last name Heller, that’s kind of ‘their wall.’ While it certainly is Eldon’s bar, it certainly is a tribute to the Hellers.”

Randy and Reta Heller said they think the celebration event will be “pretty cool.”

“The fact that they’re honoring (my) mom and dad is the biggest thing,” Randy said. “You can walk around here and see what Ben’s all about. I’m happy to do this for Ben.”

Jackson has made it a point to display as much of the former restaurant’s paraphernalia as he can find, hanging a vintage Heller’s Restaurant sign on one wall and some of the restaurant’s old drink recipe cards on another.

“I certainly don’t take anything away from all the hard work and blood, sweat and tears that any one of us have put into Washougal Times. But we certainly had one of the best foundations that one could (have), Jackson said. “If you couldn’t call what the Hellers did a legacy, then what good does that word do? There’s a mix of reasons, including a selfish reason of mine, to hold on to history, to make sure that people know that, yeah, we are our own entity, but we need to remember all the really neat stuff that has happened in this building.”

Lacey Swanson, Eldon’s granddaughter and Randy’s niece, said her family couldn’t have asked for a better person than Jackson to buy the building.

“Our little town is changing, and there’s a lot of new people,” said Swanson, a longtime Heller’s Restaurant and Washougal Times’ employee. “That’s why Ben is awesome, because he wants to keep (Heller’s) memory alive.”

Eldon Heller constructed the building in 1974 and operated a restaurant and lounge for two years. He leased it to outside parties for the next decade before Randy and Reta bought the restaurant and building from Eldon in 1987.

“I told Reta we’d do it for two years, three years max, and we’d be out of here,” said Randy, who worked as an electrician before purchasing the restaurant. “If we didn’t like it, we wouldn’t have stayed. But we had good people.”

Swanson lauded her uncle and aunt’s 31-year tenure, praising it as “rare.”

“Thirty-one years at a restaurant? That’s crazy,” Swanson said. “It usually doesn’t happen like that. (This place) was built on community. Randy was ahead of his time in a lot of ways.”

Jackson and his business partner, Tom Leaptrott, purchased the building from Randy and Reta in December 2018, and opened Washougal Times in March 2019.

“It feels like we’ve known each other for a long time,” Jackson said. “It’s been fun to get to know them. They’ve been more than gracious. I feel like I really truly know them. It’s really kind of a fairy-tale type of thing.”

Kenny Shold (not pictured), a Heller’s Restaurant customer for 44 years, created a sign for Heller’s customers to write messages to longtime owners Randy and Reta Heller. The Hellers sold their restaurant in November 2018.
Kenny Shold (not pictured), a Heller’s Restaurant customer for 44 years, created a sign for Heller’s customers to write messages to longtime owners Randy and Reta Heller. The Hellers sold their restaurant in November 2018. (Post-Record file photo) Photo