Pulling up a chair at Randy’s Cafe
September 19th, 2016
It is a chilly Monday morning in September, a little before 6 am, when I pull into the parking lot of Randy’s Cafe situated in the Lincoln Park business district along West Superior Street. There are already cars there and already people standing outside the doors waiting for them to be unlocked. A group of about eight individuals (including myself) all entered the quaint little cafe at 6 am exactly and we are greeted by a server with an out of place southern drawl.
“Come on in y’all,” she says, “I just put the coffee on.”
I seat myself at the counter and examine the menu. The menu is of a traditional and deliciously greasy style. Everything you’d expect to be on there is there. Eggs, hashbrowns, pancakes, toast, bacon, etc. It is all there. However, this place is different from your local Perkins or Denny’s and that’s what keeps me coming back here.
Randy’s reminds me of a cafe from my hometown, the North Pole. Actually, it reminds me of nearly every roadside dinner I have ever been in. Randy’s looks like your typical roadside café complete with its fair share of regulars, cheap ceramic coffee cups and random knick-knacks that cover the walls. Perhaps that is why I enjoy coming here. It gives me that hometown feel.
Things are simple here. Except for the updated coke machine and the small flat screen tv behind the counter, it is actually hard to pinpoint exactly what decade you were in. The 90’s, 80’s, perhaps even 70’s . . . It is like Randy’s had been a lost item in a time capsule.
“Robert,” the server says walking over to the gentleman to the left of me. “The usual?”
The man shook his head in approval, “Thanks Rita.”
“Sure thing, sugar,” Rita says.
“What can I get for you?” asks Rita with a smile.
I look at her tired and dazed. My eyes are heavy and only half open, but what can I say? 6 am is early for a guy like me.
“Just coffee for right now. Thanks.”
Rita is an older woman with a fun southern accent. She has long blonde hair that is pulled back into a ponytail. For her age she is still spry and light on her feet. She is extremely friendly and I enjoy watching her interact with the patrons.
Rita has waited on me many times before. Although I am far from a regular in this place. I recall the first time I ever came to Randy’s she was my waitress.
After a long night of drinking, my roommates and I were in a desperate need of coffee and breakfast food to cure our hangovers. We went for food without a shower or change of clothes. Uncle Louie’s Cafe was the place we decided to go to. However after seeing a line stretch out of the door and onto the sidewalk we realized we were not going to waste our time there. A quick Google search of breakfast food in Duluth yielded a number of results. For whatever reason, we settled on Randy’s Cafe. Perhaps it was the generic name that gave us the feeling that this was a local favorite.
When we arrived and seated ourselves at the table, I still remember the first thing Rita said to us when she came to take our order.
“Looks like y’all had a good night,” Rita said. “Can I get you guys some coffee?”
We all ordered coffee and then Rita took our orders.
“This will certainly cure y’alls hangovers.”
I laughed, realizing how obvious it must have been. We probably still had the smell of booze on us. The food came and it was pleasant. I devoured my corn beef hash and eggs. When Rita came back to the table to check if we needed anything else, I asked the most ridiculous thing that I now regret.
“Hey,” I said, “Is Randy in today?”
I don’t know, I thought it would be funny. I assumed she would have said something like “Oh, Randy isn’t a real person,” or “Randy is just the owner of the building, he rarely comes in.”
Instead she said, “Yeah. He’s in the kitchen. Would you like me to get him?”
I froze. I felt like an idiot. I don’t know, when you go to any restaurant with a name in it, Uncle Louie’s for example, you don’t expect Uncle Louie to be a real guy in the back cooking up your eggs.
“Um . . . could you just tell him we love his food,” I said trying to save face.
“Sure thing hun.”
That day I realized that Randy was a living person. Every time I have gone back I have tried to get a glimpse of Randy. However, he is an elusive man. Even one time I asked the waitress if I could introduce myself to him, but she said he was too busy to talk. Either he never seems to leave the kitchen or I just come at the wrong times.
I finish my second cup of coffee that has waken me up a little bit. I remember I am here to write a story and I have to talk to Rita. Rita is in the dining room setting tables. I approach her with pen and notepad in hand.
“Hey Rita,” I say. “We talked on the phone. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?”
“That’s right,” she says, “Ask away. I am just setting tables for a group we have coming in this morning.”
We make small talk and I slowly get to learn more about my waitress. Rita Sanders opens the store five days a week at 6 am and has been working in the industry for a number of years. She has been at Randy’s for the past four years. Sanders is a Lincoln Park resident living only blocks away from her work.
“I’ve noticed that you call everybody by name and in most cases you know what they are going to order before they even order it,” I say flipping through my notepad. “Do you guys have a lot of regulars in the community?”
“Oh yes,” says Rita setting down another coffee cup on a table. “There are a lot of amazing people that come here just about every day just to sit, talk, and have coffee.”
She moves back to a cart to grab more silverware.
“It is a much more older crowd. People who have retired. People who have been coming here since before Randy’s was Randy’s,” Rita says looking out at the customers who are eating in the mainroom. “All of our regulars come and grab a newspaper off the counter and the first thing they open to is the obituaries to see who’s in there,” Rita continues. “It could be someone who came here a lot.”
“I’ve also noticed that Randy’s is pretty special considering that it is the only place past Mesabi for about 20 blocks to sit, get together, and chit chat,” I reply. “Does Randy’s mean something to those that live in Lincoln Park?”
Rita then pointed around us to five chairs hanging from the walls and ceiling. They did not mean anything to me other than random decoration.
“You see those chairs?” asks Rita. I nod my head. Each chair appears old and worn down, but no two chairs are exactly the same.
“People use to sit in those chairs. Regulars who have now passed away.”
Every time I have ever been here I have never once thought about the chairs hanging from the ceiling. Little did I know that each one was there to commemorate the life of someone. Not just anyone, but those who were worthy enough. Those who probably spent a lot of time here. Those who got to know the staff and the customers and vice versa. People who had been here long enough to warrant retiring their chair. I don’t know, but it is something special.
I continue to talk with Rita, but I can’t stop thinking about the chairs. Rita finishes setting the dining room and offers to buy me breakfast. I decline and ask for another cup a coffee. I talk to another server and a few customers, but nothing strikes me quite as much as those chairs. Before I leave I flip through my notes realizing I have found the focus of my story.
I return to Randy’s a few weeks later armed with a DSLR hoping to take a few photos of the chairs to add to my story. I enter Randy’s a little before 8 am this time. Rita is behind the counter.
“Hey Rita, remember me?” I ask.
“Of course I do. How have you been Max?” she says.
“Still working on the story. I was wonder if I could take a few pictures of the chairs,” I say holding up my camera.
“Sure. I haven’t dusted them in awhile, so you might have to edit that out,” Rita says laughing. “Oh hey! Look at what this little girl left me the other day.”
Rita pulls out a crumpled up napkin from her pocket.
A note scrawled out a crumpled napkin by a little girl left for her waitress Rita at Randy’s Cafe in Lincoln Park on Monday, October 10, 2016
“Maybe you could put it in your story,” she says.
“I’d love to,” I reply and snap a picture of it.
I get the pictures of the chairs I need for the story and sit down for a cup of coffee. I flip through the photos. Rita calls my name from a table behind me.
“Max! This is Dan Rabold,” she says gesturing to a middle aged man sitting at a table behind me with a woman. “His dad, Carl, is one of the ones who has his chair hanging up in the dining room.”
Rabold is a man in a grey shirt and a baseball cap on his head. He has a scruffy reddish beard and glasses. He looks at me with interest.
“I believe my dad is the last one they put up there,” Rabold says to me.
I tell them what I am up too and ask if I can sit with them. They make room for me their table. The woman is Rabold’s girlfriend Jen Poulter, who is also a local and a regular here at Randy’s.
“Did you guys bring that from home?” I ask pointing to the coffee mate french vanilla creamer.
“Well they keep it here for us,” says Jen.
They come here everyday they told me. Rabold has personally been coming to this cafe for the past 40 years. Back before Randy’s Cafe was known as Randy’s it went by names such as Abridgements, 21st Street Delight, and Judy’s Cafe.
“The only days you won’t catch me here is on holidays when they aren’t open.”
“Did your dad bring you here when you were a kid?”
“Oh yeah,” says Rabold taking off his cap and scratching his head. “This was his spot.”
“When did he pass away if you don’t mind me asking?”
Rabold struggles to pinpoint the exact year. Jen helps him. “It was ’86 I believe,” he pauses. “This is the ‘unlucky corner’,” says Rabold gesturing to the corner we are sitting in. “My father use to sit here. So did some of those other chairs on the wall.”
“Is your chair going to be up there one day?” I ask with a little humor.
“Maybe,” he says,“I don’t know, but coming here is like a habit you do not want to break.”