The Press Newspaper

Toledo, Ohio & Lake Erie

The Press Newspaper

The Press Newspaper

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For the last 44 years, John Free II has owned and operated Freeway restaurant on Navarre Avenue, but the diner has been in his family for six decades.

They say nine of out of 10 restaurants will go out of business in their first year, or thereabouts, but Freeway has become virtually a landmark off, where else, the freeway — Interstate 280. It can easily be reached from Oregon’s State Route 2 exit — five minutes from downtown Toledo and 10 minutes from the Ohio Turnpike.

In the nearly 60 years that the restaurant has been open, Free will be the first to admit his restaurant has undergone considerable changes. 

The restaurant was initially the Freeway Drive-in, a place that included waitresses on roller skates serving burgers and hot dogs to customers. Now, it's a regular diner that has withstood the test of time.

One thing that has undoubtedly helped the restaurant stay in business is the fact that it's open 24 hours a day to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner at any time. It's just as accessible after a night out on the town as it is for an early-morning breakfast.

k Freeway
John Free has operated the Freeway Restaurant for 44 years. (Press photo by Ken Grosjean)

The restaurant was started in 1957 by Free's grandfather, John I. His son, Skip, played a major role in the operations of the diner. At the time, John II was 6-years-old, but he started working at the restaurant before he was a teenager, doing anything from peeling potatoes to washing dishes to curbside service when the place was still a drive-in.

“I started paying into Social Security when I was 12,” John Free II laughs.

After graduating from Clay High School in 1969, Free attended Bowling Green State University for three years before returning home. He then took out a loan and purchased the diner from his grandfather.


Omelets, pancakes and burgers galore
The diner specializes in omelets, among other things. Fourteen styles of omelets range from plain to bacon, lettuce, tomato and cheese to chili and onions to pineapple rings and bacon to bleu cheese and bacon. 

However, you could also say it specializes in pancakes, which include regular, cinnamon, cinnamon pecan, blueberry and éclair. And of course, there is all the food breakfast lovers crave — eggs, toast, bacon, hash browns, biscuits, French toast and English muffins.

You could also say it also specializes in burgers — 14 different kinds of hamburgers. In addition, there is a hot roast beef sandwich that is highly recommended by Free, and a BLT, a perch sandwich, a club sandwich and a Reuben sandwich, and the list goes on. The finger foods and side dishes include French fries, tater tots, onion rings, chicken tenders and baked potatoes. 

The dinners include a variety of items like fried chicken, an eight ounce chopped sirloin, butterfly shrimp, seafood platters and pork chops. And, there are desserts — pie a la mode, sundaes and ice cream. 

“Decent food, good help, good employees," Free says are the key to success. "I’ve been blessed with a lot of good employees. Consistency is a big key.”

Free says the weekends are the busiest time of the week at the diner, but during the day, it can fluctuate.

“It varies,” Free said. “We’re fairly steady for all three shifts.”

As you might expect, owning a business can be stressful at times.

“There are short days, long days, drawbacks, and benefits," said Free. "The telephone is my alarm clock. If I hear a ring, then I’m up.”

His father, who passed away two years ago, believed hard work was the reason the restaurant sustained itself for six decades. Even if a restaurant gets past those first few years, business acumen often sours when it is handed down to the children or grandchildren, but not in this case.

“I think my father knows he taught me how to work,” Free said. “Lots of times, the second or third generations don’t make it.”

In addition to his role as a business owner, Free has been a prominent member of the Oregon community through his work as a basketball coach. For 21 years, he helped coach the Clay girls’ basketball team under Roger Achter, and he got to mentor Roger’s daughter, Kate, who went on to a stellar career at Bowling Green State University and is now the head women’s coach at Loyola University in Chicago. 

Free left Clay in 2011 to join then-coach Terry Murnen at Cardinal Stritch. He was an assistant to Murnen for two years before becoming the head coach for one season, 2014.

When he was in college at Bowling Green State University, Free was a baseball teammate with Doug Bair, who went on to win two Major League World Series titles, one with St. Louis and another with Detroit. Another teammate was John Knox, who played four seasons with the Detroit Tigers. 

In the early 1970s, the Falcons competed against the likes of Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt (Ohio University), one of the greatest players in Major League history, and Steve Stone (Kent State), who played 11 seasons in the Majors before becoming Harry Caray's broadcast partner for 14 years, calling games for the Chicago Cubs.

"Schmidt hit a home run to center field so high once that I couldn't even see it," Free recalled from his collegiate days.

The Freeway diner is located at 2665 Navarre Avenue, across the street from Mercy St. Charles Hospital and next to Arby’s. Debit and credit cards are not accepted, though checks are, but there is an ATM inside the restaurant. Carryout orders are available, too. The restaurant can be reached at 419-691-9038. 

 

 

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