“It’s sad,” was all that the waitress said before she took my order. There was almost a tear in the corner of her eye when she plunked down the pot of coffee into our green booth.
After almost 40 years, Bonnie’s Café has lost its lease and will serve its last breakfast and lunch on March 26.
“I feel a lot of anger about how this went down, but I have to let go of that to carry out my mother’s legacy,” Becky Moosbrugger said.
Bonnie’s was named after Moosbrugger’s mom, Bonnie Roell, who grew up on St. Paul’s West Side and had always dreamed of owning her own restaurant.
The Vandalia Avenue location was one of two that she started along University Avenue, under the motto “nobody goes hungry,” and to hear people tell tales of Bonnie is to be inspired: She never missed a day of work, and for years opened the café at 4 a.m. to serve the early shift. She treated everyone equally, no matter how down on their luck, and took pains to hire folks from the Dorothy Day Center or nearby neighborhoods.
She died three years ago. Ever since, Moosbrugger has been trying to fill her shoes, learning to cook and keeping the place looking fresh. The menu and decor are a living homage. Bonnie’s favorite color, an oldfashioned pale-green, dominates the café’s color palette and the potatoes and eggs (more than 800 served each week) dominate the food.
Signs hawking different specials adorn the walls, stickers showing the gradually inflating prices are the only signs of change. It’s the kind of place with checked tablecloths, straightbacked wooden booths, and a well-thumbed stack of today’s papers waiting on the counter.
“For her it was a dream come true; it was not work to her,” Moosbrugger said. “Every single person meant as much to her as any other. She worked so hard, and she had no idea what she created. A lot of the attention she got was unfortunately after her death. So many people have cried because of the legacy, and they kept [coming to the] café as a way to hang on to her. This is my connection to my mom.”
For decades the café has shared its building with the bar next door, first called the Ace Box bar and now the Dubliner, an Irish bar.
The two joints have shared a delicate nightand- day relationship, “a bit like a roommate” according to the café’s chef, Chris Johnson, especially since many of Bonnie’s employees have been in recovery over the years. But it’s always seemed amicable; on St. Patrick’s day Bonnie’s would provide hundreds of corned beef sandwiches for Dubliner’s back-tent revelers.
Bonnie’s lease ran out last year and Moosbrugger recently learned that owner M&J Enterprises would not be renewing it. Instead, the Dubliner will be expanding into Bonnie’s space as early as this summer. Originally Moosbrugger had thought she could keep the café open until April and planned celebratory events and a memorabilia garage sale. Then, in the second week of March, she learned they only had until Sunday, March 13, to get out. That date changed again. For now, it looks like March 26 will be Bonnie’s last day.
“It isn’t about me, because I’m a damn good cook, but it’s about the regulars,” said Johnson, who cooked and managed Bonnie’s for years.
“It’s been a 39-year run, a legacy of Bonnie’s that Becky’s tried to carry out. “But where are the regulars going to go? We are their comfort zone. Where are they going to find the love and grace of all of us that serve them here? It’s sad, but it’s business.”
The end of the Bonnie’s era might be a sign of a changing neighborhood, as marginal industrial properties like the nearby Vandalia Tower transform into creative-class offices or apartments aimed at younger demographics.
When Bonnie’s closing was announced on the Internet a month ago, the news quickly spread around the country because, for years, the city’s truckers made the café a haven. During lightrail construction, workers would eat at the counter and around the small tables stacked with hard hats.
Choking back emotions, Moosbrugger insisted on one thing. She wanted the last meal at Bonnie’s to be enjoyed just as her mother would have wanted. Bonnie used to say a little prayer with each meal she sent out to the tables, and there was an almost spiritual feeling in the air during the café’s last month.
“I want everyone to know that I did not give up, that I did everything I could,” Moosbrugger said just days before closing.
“I will walk away with a broken heart but with pride knowing that I lived up to her standards and her reputation to the bitter end. “With the help of our phenomenal staff we will serve our final meal like she did her first. There might be a tear in that last bowl of soup, but it will be served with grace, love and dignity.”
Bill Lindeke is an urban geographer and writer living in St. Paul.