Freeland Cafe new owners Jeff and Deb Kennelly talk to customers during a busy Father’s Day Sunday breakfast. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group

Freeland Cafe new owners Jeff and Deb Kennelly talk to customers during a busy Father’s Day Sunday breakfast. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group

New owners retain flavor of Freeland’s popular diner

‘Three sisters’ say goodbye to their parents’ restaurant

Change don’t come easy for some people in these parts.

Especially when it comes to their tried-and-true Loco Moco, eggs Benedict and biscuits and gravy.

All are top breakfast sellers at Freeland Cafe, the venerable family diner that recently sold and reopened after a five-week closure for deep cleaning, rest and repair.

There are new owners, but it’s the same menu, same interior decor and same buzzing, busy vibe that it’s always been.

Washington state natives Deb and Jeff Kennelly purchased the popular diner and bar this spring from the three daughters of Bob and Virina Bryant, who started the Freeland Cafe in 1974.

It closed April 22 with the family as owners and re-opened June 1 with the Kennellys at the grill and the till and almost all the 20-person staff returned to work.

“This isn’t a business that’s broken, so it doesn’t need to be fixed,” said Petite Bryant-Hunt, one of the daughters who are collectively known as “the three sisters.”

“This is a 45-year success story, but it’s taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”

The breakfast, lunch, dinner and bar-in-the-back business, open 15 hours every day, was established as the Freeland Cafe in 1974 by Bob and Virina Bryant. Following their deaths, three of their daughters — Petite Bryant-Hunt, Dawn Swamp and Lani Bryant-Anderson — shouldered their mom’s dream of owning her own restaurant.

“People have been coming here literally for generations,” Bryant-Hunt said. “We served the kids of our parents’ friends, then their grandkids, so it’s a very emotional time for us.”

The Kennellys, who grew up in Kirkland and Redmond and then raised their own family in St. Louis, have no experience in the food or restaurant industry so buying one they could just assume ‘as is’ worked in their favor.

Deb’s mother has lived in Coupeville for 15 years so the couple is familiar with Whidbey and even stopped at the cafe long before they had a notion to buy it.

“It was the perfect business for us,” Jeff Kennelly said. “We’ve been training with the sisters. Lani showed how to make many of the dishes, and the staff has been great helping us out.”

Deb Kennelly admits she asked if it would be okay to paint the front door blue and add a flower pot and wooden bench out front.

But they went even further.

“We added diet Dr. Pepper and Mountain Dew,” Jeff Kennelly proudly pointed out, a fact advertised on a small sidewalk chalk board.

More desserts may be added to the menu as well as more daily specials.

“Jeff’s a great baker,” said his wife, Deb, “so maybe in the next 30 days, we’ll add homemade cinnamon rolls and pies.”

Freeland Cafe is a place where the same group of men have been meeting every morning for coffee for decades. Where bar talk revolves around the latest bonehead trade by the Mariners. Where there’s not a laptop or cell phone in sight as friends tell bad jokes and carry on actual face-to-face conversation.

And where they know what you want before you sit down.

“It’s been popular for so long and it has such a wonderful history with locals,” said Brenda Hogarth, taking a few quaffs of beer straight from the bottle one Friday evening as she studied Sudoku in the newspaper. “They keep Miller on ice for me because I like it cold. They know I’ll be coming in to watch the Mariners.”

Bob Bryant retired early from Boeing to fulfill his wife’s dream of owning a restaurant. First, they ran the Weathervane restaurant by the Clinton ferry dock, and then bought the Freeland diner.

Back then, it was called Kimball’s Cafe. The Bryants not only changed the name but also added food from Hawaii, where Virina grew up.

“Back then on Whidbey, there was not much in the way of Oriental food or Chinese restaurants,” Bryant-Hunt said.

Based on her favorite food from those other islands, Virina soon turned many Whidbey Islanders onto steaming bowls of teriyaki and saimin, which is made with Chinese egg noodles in a shrimp broth topped with barbecued pork, hard boiled egg and green onion.

“Breakfast Hawaiian style” is the first item on the hefty eight-page menu. It’s made with two eggs, steamed rice and either Portuguese sausage or Spam.

Then, there’s the ever-popular Loco Moco breakfast plate, a hamburger patty with two eggs on top of steamed rice covered in gravy.

Or whatever makes the customer happy.

“I’m here every day for breakfast,” said Dave Moulton. “They never know what I’m going to order except on Sunday: One-half of eggs Benedict with diced green onions and hash browns smothered in gravy.”

From the beginning, the whole Bryant family pitched in, cooked, served, washed dishes, whatever was needed to help out Mom and Dad.

But as they got older, the daughters pursued other careers and raised their own families. When both their parents’ health declined from various cancers, the sisters took turns caretaking and keeping the restaurant humming along.

When their parents died, first their father in 2003, followed by their mother in 2005, the sisters made the decision to carry on their mother’s dream.

“As much as we didn’t want the headache of owning a restaurant, it’s part of our blood,” said Bryant-Hunt, who took care of management-administration. She sometimes tended bar and became known as the “Queen of Fun” for planning many events — Oscar Night, Snowflake Sunday, New Year’s Eve customer appreciation, even a poetry slam or two.

Her younger sister, Lani Bryant-Anderson, oversaw the kitchen while sibling Dawn Swamp served food and kept an eye on the front area. All the sisters dealt with day-to-day operations and the many categories of “things that go wrong in a packed and popular restaurant and bar that’s open every day.”

Septic system woes, burglaries, kitchen fans going kaput, irate customers and 2 a.m. calls about security alarms going off.

“The sisters deserve their retirement,” said regular Ali Shippey, treating her dad to a Sunday Father’s Day breakfast in the bar. “Let’s hope the new owners maintain the legacy.”

Greeting customers and interacting with the community are what Bryant-Hunt said she’ll miss the most. Her younger sister is not so teary eyed.

“After 30 years behind the grill, I said one day, ‘I just can’t make another cheeseburger,’” Bryant-Anderson said.

Should any of the three sisters get nostalgic for the old days, all they have to do is walk through the new blue door.

Most likely, the same faces will still be there to greet them.

Tables are turned on the ‘three sisters’ of the Freeland Cafe as they stop in as customers. Petite Bryant-Hunt, far left, Dawn Swamp and Lani Bryant-Anderson recently sold the popular diner that their parents opened in 1974. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group

Tables are turned on the ‘three sisters’ of the Freeland Cafe as they stop in as customers. Petite Bryant-Hunt, far left, Dawn Swamp and Lani Bryant-Anderson recently sold the popular diner that their parents opened in 1974. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group

Freeland Cafe is as busy as ever since reopening June 1 under new owners. Father’s Day, the dining area and bar were packed with people having breakfast.

Freeland Cafe is as busy as ever since reopening June 1 under new owners. Father’s Day, the dining area and bar were packed with people having breakfast.

Petite Bryant-Hunt, left, and new co-owner Deb Kennelly became fast friends during the months it took to transfer ownership of the Freeland Cafe. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group

Petite Bryant-Hunt, left, and new co-owner Deb Kennelly became fast friends during the months it took to transfer ownership of the Freeland Cafe. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News Group

Freeland Cafe original owners, Virina and Bob Bryant, enjoyed boating when not juggling the many duties of a cafe and bar. Three of their daughters kept the restaurant humming for decades and recently sold it. Photo provided

Freeland Cafe original owners, Virina and Bob Bryant, enjoyed boating when not juggling the many duties of a cafe and bar. Three of their daughters kept the restaurant humming for decades and recently sold it. Photo provided

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