Oct. 31 2012 12:00 AM

Travelers Club wrapping up 30-year journey

The Travelers Club International Restaurant and Tuba Museum in Okemos has been an oddball, off-the-beaten-path spot for food and brews since 1982, sitting quaintly by while the big box stores and chain restaurants moved in and transformed the area into a shopping mecca. But it’s hard to keep a small business running these days, says the restaurant’s owner, Will White. The aged brick-and-mortar building is set to close Nov. 12, two years after a foreclosure.

Travelers Club became known for serving up American, Mexican, European and Indian foods, with special focus on vegetarian dishes. The restaurant developed a vast "traveling menu,” but much of the allure was its quirks, such as the timeworn tubas that adorned the walls. White, a veteran musician, said that shtick just kind of happened.

“We used to have music there, and I’d play the tuba with whatever band was playing,” White said. “I left a couple lying around and they were getting in the way so I hung them on the wall and called it a museum. We had to make room for the customers.”  

But many of those customers just stopped showing up — White said the Travelers Club lost 40 percent of the business it had in its heyday. It proved to be a devastating blow for White, who lost the building to foreclosure in 2010.

“The property lost value, and we couldn’t afford the payments,” he said. “The bank wouldn’t re-negotiate with us. I was paying more for the property than what it was worth at too high of a rate. (Business) is almost back to where it was before the financial crash (in 2008) when people stopped going out to eat, but it’s still not like it was in the ‘90s. We used to have people lining up out the door.”

The landmark building was built as a hardware store in 1947 and converted into Miller´s Ice Cream Parlor in 1959. In April 1982 the property was sold to a group led by White who turned it into the Travelers Club. Over the summer, the Douglas J Aveda Institute stepped up as a potential buyer of the property as part of an expansion plan, but White said “that deal has still not closed.” While the building won’t house his restaurant anymore, White would still like to protect it. He said demolishing the antique structure would be a shame, and says he hopes the new owner, Douglas J Hair Salon, will develop around it. Does White think Douglas J will eventually buy and demolish the tuba museum? 

“I’d hate to guess. It’s really up to the banks,” White said. “I have no knowledge of what Douglas J’s negotiations are. I’d say it’s not a certainty because it hasn’t happened yet and it was supposed to have happened by now.”    

But even with the current plights, White said he doesn’t plan to let Traveler’s Club or his music store, White Brothers, die. 

“I’ve lost everything,” he said. “I may have to declare personal bankruptcy just over the property issue, but the businesses will hopefully survive. Once the Tuba Museum leaves that building, though, it’s never going to be the same.”

White says he’s looking to relocate both businesses somewhere in the downtown Okemos area, with a potential re-opening in as soon as six months. 

“We have some prospects, and if the deals go through I think everyone is going to be really excited,” White says. “It will probably have a slightly different concept with not as big of a menu. 

But we’ll still have beer.”

Travelers Club International Restaurant and Tuba Museum
2138 Hamilton Road, Okemos
9 a.m. – 9 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.
9 a.m. – 11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
(517) 349-1701
Closing Nov. 12