By Alexe van Beuren
There are two subjects that Bill Rotenberry wants to talk about: his business and his town. Since he named his restaurant for the town, it’s hardly surprising.
“I came back here (to Water Valley) to retire and piddle,” Rotenberry tells me in his forthright way as we sit at a table in his cafe on North Main Street. “But people wanted a restaurant.”
And so, in 2001, Rotenberry opened the Water Valley Cafe. He was no stranger to the restaurant business; in 1958, his mother began the family tradition of serving in the food industry by working at the Oakland School’s cafeteria.
“My mother was the best cook in the world,” Rotenberry says, and tells me about her homemade hamburger buns. “I wish I had the time to make them here.”
The Water Valley Cafe is Rotenberry’s second restaurant. After graduating from Mississippi State University with a degree in industrial technology and minors in mathematics and history, Rotenberry taught school for four years and then moved to Texas, where he eventually ran a successful restaurant called Pryor’s Charcoal Grill in the small town of Farmersville.
It was in Texas that Rotenberry witnessed a small town’s renaissance.
“You just wouldn’t believe what the Main Street Program there did,” Rotenberry tells me, brown eyes bright. “They did a tremendous job,” and goes on to describe tea rooms and gift shops opened, streets re-bricked, and a Christmas parade instituted.
“So why did you decide to leave?” I ask.
Rotenberry shakes his head. “All of a sudden,” he says, “Dallas came to us. The town just didn’t have the same country atmosphere.” He smiles. “I don’t like traffic.”
And so, in 2001, Bill Rotenberry moved back to Water Valley with his Texas-native wife, Peggy (their four daughters soon followed their parents to Mississippi). In October of that same year, he opened the Water Valley Cafe.
It’s been a tumultuous six years.
“I admit I’ve made some mistakes,” Rotenberry concedes. “But still, people in Water Valley are going out of town Friday night. I need more support, but,” and he shrugs. “I can’t make them come here.”
One of the mistakes Rotenberry admits is closing the restaurant for ten months of 2006. “I thought I was done,” he tells me.
“Were you tired of the restaurant business?” I ask.
Rotenberry leans forward, hand on his knee. “I couldn’t hardly walk,” he says. “And an aching knee all the time will make you tired of anything.”
So Rotenberry put the Water Valley Cafe up for sale. But as Bill’s knee improved after surgery and phsyical therapy, the sale fell through – and so he began to reconsider leaving the restaurant business.
After a family conference, the Rotenberrys decided to re-open, seven days a week, for breakfast and lunch, with a catering business on the side. The Water Valley Cafe has been re-opened for a year.
Along with his renewed sense of dedication to his restaurant, Rotenberry is becoming increasingly involved with the civic affairs of his adopted hometown. He hosts Compassion Ministry’s Thanksgiving meal at his restaurant; last year, they fed over 175 people. Rotenberry has also joined the newly formed Main Street organization, which aims to revitalize downtown.
“I would like Water Valley to be a town with more shops,” he tells me, leaning forward in his blue Water Valley Cafe t-shirt. “When I was a kid, all these buildings were full. Stores stayed open late on Saturdays. It was a bustling town,” he tells me in a tone of indignation, and mentions people spending their money in Oxford.
“If I can buy it from Jackie Sartain,” he tells me, giving an example of shopping locally, “I’m going to buy it from Jackie Sartain. Here (in Water Valley), you’re dealing with people you know, and they’ll help you if they can.”
With his restaurant re-opened, a home on the other side of the bypass, and three out of his four daughters living in town, Bill Rotenberry has certainly sunk his roots deep into the town he used to visit as a child. “I have no regrets,” he tells me when I ask if he misses Texas. “This is home.”