Becky Moosbrugger has catlike green eyes. They're an uncanny match for the spring green paint awash over the wooden booths, vinyl diner stools, and gingham tablecloths at Bonnie's Cafe.
Her mother, Bonnie Rolle, opened the cafe 38 years ago. (The first incarnation was at University and Western, and this location, Bonnie's II, survived for the subsequent 34 years.) For Rolle — known to everyone simply as Bonnie — it was a lifelong dream.
"This is all I remember of my life," says Moosbrugger. "She was here more than she was home. At one time we opened at 4:30 a.m., so she would be here from 3 to 3."
As she speaks, her eyes periodically well with tears.
According to Moosbrugger, on January 30, she was given unofficial word from a neighbor that the landlord had offered Bonnie's lease renewal to the adjacent business, the Dubliner Pub. In February, the property owner, M&J Enterprises, confirmed the news.
"We were never offered to renew the lease," Moosbrugger said. (M&J Enterprises did not return our calls for comment.) "It never dawned on me [that this could happen]. I never thought it would end."
Fans of the iconic cafe are legion. Their motto, Bonnie's mantra, is "Nobody leaves hungry."
The time capsule of a diner serves the kind of no-nonsense, homestyle cooking that would hold up under the scrutiny of a truck driver. Dishes go by monikers like "The Hungry Man" and "The Big Eater" and hold things like hefty bricks of meatloaf beneath meaty gravy, scratch potatoes, and corn. The "Farmer John" brings you two sausages rolled snugly inside of pancakes, nuzzling a raft of amber hash browns, the whole of it blanketed in two eggs your way.
Sturdy food. Not fancy food. Good food.
Here it's cash (or personal check) only, and prices rarely exceed 10 bucks.
But the real appeal of Bonnie's was Bonnie herself. A beloved community figure, she set fierce standards for service, friendliness, and compassion.
At Christmastime, she brought in hundreds of dozens of homemade cookies to give away to anyone who wanted some. If a person came into the cafe and didn't have enough money to eat, Bonnie made certain that they did anyway. She called local rehabilitation centers to see if anyone was in need of money or work, and gave them jobs in the kitchen.
"To her, everyone was the same. She believed in second, third, and fourth chances," says Moosbrugger. "This was her love, her passion. Every single person who came in here respected and loved her. There are a lot of customers who rely on us who we're worried about now."
Moosbrugger worked at her mother's apron strings until she went to college. "Which is good, because I was able to learn her standards."
You can feel it. Even in the midst of the looming crisis of their closing, she and another seen-everything server all but obsessively check on our contentment, the quality of the food, and whether the coffee needs a warm-up.
Bonnie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012 and passed away the following year. Moosbrugger says she promised to uphold her mother's legacy on her deathbed.
"It was meant to be passed down to my children. My son proposed to his fiancee here under the picture of my mom because he wanted grandma involved. This is my last connection to her. It's like losing my mother all over again."
The adjacent Dubliner Pub is taking over the lease and will expand the bar into Bonnie's space.
Geri Scanlon, co-owener of the Dubliner, said "Basically we don't know why [the landlord] didn't offer the lease to them and offered it to us instead." She added that they decided to take the offer because it was a logical business decision.
"[Bonnie's] has been a family business for 30 years. I'm sure they're devastated," said Scanlon. "We'll miss them in the neighborhood. We wish them luck."
Though they originally thought they would remain open until April 25, Moosbrugger said she's not sure how much longer she'll retain the keys to the space. She said Bonnie's could close as early as today (Tuesday).
2160 University Ave., St. Paul