Saturday, June 12, 2021

Inside the effort to save the Caldwell Industrial Airport (KEUL) cafe

CALDWELL, Idaho — Becky Aldrich calls the Caldwell Airport Cafe her home. Where she lives and sleeps is her second.

When she walks inside the cafe, she sees the model airplanes hanging from the ceiling. She sees the photos on the walls that tell the airport’s story. She sees the people who have supported the family owned business she now runs.

Aldrich has worked at the restaurant for 16 years. She’s been the owner for the last 10 after her grandmother handed it off to her. Aldrich’s sister and sister-in-law work there too.

The customers are loyal. The staff is friendly. Conversation often fills the dining rooms. Aldrich described her regulars as a family — they agree. Some pilots from throughout the region fly specifically to Caldwell just to eat there.

“This building is my life,” Aldrich said.

Everything changed in late winter, when Aldrich found out the city of Caldwell is considering knocking down the city-owned building to put a new hangar or two at the Caldwell Industrial Airport. The city runs the airport and maintains it’s still early in the process since no official Request For Proposals have been sent out. At a May 17 city council meeting, though, a preliminary blueprint was shown of where the new hangars could go — in the same spot where the restaurant’s building sits now.

Since the building is an old farmhouse, its intended use wasn’t for a restaurant. But it’s become a big attraction for both pilots and locals.

More than a dozen people showed up to the May 17 meeting to support Aldrich. An online petition had nearly 1,500 signatures as of Thursday. The restaurant has been woven into the fabric of Caldwell.

Aldrich wants it to stay that way.

“My biggest hope is they start the development on that side,” Aldrich said while looking out the window and across the tarmac. “There's lots of room over there to do so and leave this building alone.”

Late this winter, Aldrich wanted to renew her lease with the city. That’s when she found out Caldwell is in the early stages of potentially planning a new use for the space.

During a recent internal audit, the city deemed the cafe’s lease in violation of Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Since the airport is supported by FAA grants, it’s required to charge market-rate rent for leases.

Airport Manager Rob Oates said the city is looking at knocking down the building because of a combination of two main reasons. One is because the building is in “the perfect location” for a new hangar, which would be a “dramatic upgrade to the facilities,” he said. The other is because the city says the lease needs to be re-done anyway.

The original farmhouse was already old when the airport moved to its current location, Oates said. That was around 50 years ago.

“The most likely scenario would be to replace that building,” Oates said.

Oates, Public Works Director Brent Orton and other city officials have said they want to work with Aldrich. But she was upset to find out a possible blueprint already exists with the new hangar. As of now, it’s only discussions and no plan has been selected. The whole process could end up taking years.

Aldrich wanted to jump in front of the situation. That’s why she spoke at the May 3 city council meeting. The discussion item was then put on the agenda for May 17.

The building also houses a few offices. Another tenant approached the city and offered to buy it.

“That is not an idea the city will entertain,” Oates said.

Aldrich recently met with Oates and Public Works Director Brent Orton to discuss different possibilities. They told her the building was costing the city too much money. Aldrich disputes the city’s calculations and said she thinks the strategy might’ve been “a scare tactic.”

They presented three ideas: Aldrich could potentially return to a new building in a similar location on the west side of the airport along Aviation Way once the new hangar is built. She could move into the Hubler Terminal on the north side of the airport. Or she could operate out of a food truck.

Aldrich had issues with all three.

She didn’t understand why the city would complain about costs and then propose building an entirely new building in a similar spot. That new building could also potentially include a restaurant on the second floor, a more difficult place for older customers to walk to. Even though the city might be supportive of a restaurant, there’s no guarantee Aldrich would be chosen as the one to run it.

Moving into the other terminal could maybe work for Aldrich, but it doesn’t yet have a space built for a restaurant.

Aldrich quickly rejected the food truck idea. That would wreck the ambiance she’s spent years creating.

“We would like to be as fair as we can manage,” Oates said. “No one looks to the city as a beacon of fairness, naturally, but that’s our goal.”

After feeling unsatisfied, Aldrich took her fight to the Caldwell City Council. She spoke on May 3 about how important the cafe is to her, and how she views it as more than just a business. Councilmembers have repeated that no plans are in place and everything so far has just been preliminary discussions.

At the May 17 meeting, Aldrich again emphasized her points. Oates and Orton have said the early conversations with Aldrich are an example of how they’re listening to her.

“I do believe that some version of this redevelopment plan is in the best interest of our airport and community,” Oates said May 17.

If the city moves forward with a Request For Proposal, the possibilities will be reviewed by the Airport Commission and the City Council will have the final say. If the eventual redevelopment is approved, that’s when tenants would receive official notice of the change.

Orton said the reason the city hasn’t given Aldrich a new lease is because he didn’t want to spring the higher rate on her without consulting her. He asserted there was some “miscommunication” regarding the city’s process, explaining any final decisions are still a ways off.

“I understand that it costs tax dollars,” Aldrich said at the May 17 meeting, “and I also understand, and I can speak on behalf of your taxpayers, that they would be proud to know and see where those tax dollars are going.”

Caldwell Councilman Jarom Wagoner said at the May 3 meeting that he’s been a customer at the cafe several times.

“I take my boys there every now and then,” Wagoner said. “We love to go there and watch the planes and eat and we can see our house from there.”

Jay Hardman, 62, has been a loyal customer the past five years. He’s one of multiple customers who Aldrich has thrown birthday parties for.

“It's the best place to eat,” Hardman said. “Simple as that.”

Hardman said he has family members living in Montana who request to eat at the Airport Cafe every time they visit. He’s bewildered why the city is thinking of redeveloping the area.

When this process started, Aldrich wasn’t sure if her customers love the restaurant as much as she does. She’s grateful for the support she’s received.

“See ya next time. Love ya,” Hardman says every time he leaves the restaurant.

Aldrich began working full-time at the cafe when she was 18. She’s 33 now. Her customers have watched her grow up. Her children have already thought about potentially working there someday.

“It’s not just a building,” Aldrich told the City Council May 3 while fighting through emotions. “To me, it has memories from decade to decade and generation to generation.”


  1. Sounds like a solution searching for a problem.

  2. I can really understand why the governmental pukes of Caldwell would want to close down this restaurant. A charming and unique restaurant. The owner takes a lot of pride in her restaurant. Restaurant has paid rent to the airport for decades. These are the sorts of thing you don't want in your community.

    1. The city is probably being flooded with Biden's illegals and they have to find new revenue taxes to pay for their housing (yes, that is really happening all around the nation in non-Dem run states).

  3. It's all about the money. Obviously this city isn't getting enough taxpayer revenue between business and residents, so they have to go on a fishing expedition to find a "problem" business to get rid of and build higher tax revenue real estate rental/lease revenue. In this case, it just so happens to be hangars. Nothing ever, EVER has come good out of government at any level be it local, state, or federal.