Most of the chairs around the U-shaped counter are empty, waiting for the next regular to come through the door.
Moments later, the door squeaks open and a man enters, grabbing up a section of the newspaper and finding his designated spot at what has become the community table.
“Hey, Lisle, how you doin’ buddy?” Linda calls from across the room. Vi, one of the servers, in a swift, practiced motion, deftly reaches beneath the counter for Lisle’s favorite cup and pours it full of steaming, aromatic coffee.
Everyone seems to know everyone else, Linda says. “It’s the ‘Cheers’ of cafes.”
Some of the customers have certain chairs, she says – like 93-year-old Edna Federmeyer – a sweet lady, one of her best customers, “but God help you if you sit in her chair!” Linda laughs.
Linda does most of the cooking at the little café that sits near the crossroads of Fox River Road (Highway W) and Highway C in Wilmot.
That’s the way she likes it. Linda bought the café a little more than three years ago – but she’s been in the restaurant business since she was 12 years old.
The café schedule took some getting used to. “For 30-some years I was going to bed when I’m getting up now. That was a real challenge for me,” she says.
“I cook every day but Friday morning, and I have Thursday off,” Linda says.
She makes all the soups and the specials, as well as the baked goods displayed under glass domes in “Linda’s Little Bakery.”
A peek at the assortment reveals cookies, brownies, cupcakes, muffins, and slices of the pie of the day – today, it is pumpkin chiffon.
A faded hand-lettered sign lists the prices, and taped to each shelf below the goods is a card that identifies whether the cookies are oatmeal or chocolate chip or some other delectable combination of ingredients.
The sign and labels aren’t necessary, since it seems everyone coming in knows exactly what he or she wants.
With all that cooking and baking to be done, Linda starts her day early – arriving at 3:30 a.m. so the doors can open at 5 a.m.
That’s when the first group of regulars shuffles in, sipping coffee and commenting on the latest news before heading to work.
Some of them look for their favorite cups or dishes. Linda says she opened the café on a shoestring budget. “It’s all done in early Salvation Army,” she laughs.
The café seats 72 people, but there were only 30-some cups when she bought the place, she says.
She picked up assorted cups and plates at the Salvation Army or other resale shops. Then her customers got in on it.
“They bring me all their old cups and old plates,” she says, noting that many of her customers will scan the room, looking for a table set with their old dishes.
“They love it,” she says.
Some of the local Wilmot businesses help her decorate as well, hanging pictures on the walls and scattering an assortment of decorative items throughout the café. Just about everything is for sale. It’s a way the local businesses support each other, Linda says.
Near the counter, a bulletin board displays newspaper clippings featuring stories about customers, the café, or Wilmot in general.
A framed poem also hangs on the wall – one that dairy farmer and customer Ray Stoxen penned in the café’s honor. It reads, in part:
“In the heart of Wilmot,
On Gravel Truck Alley,
You’ll find Linda’s Café,
With her running the galley…”
A window between the kitchen and the café counter allows Linda to see everyone while she cooks in the kitchen, quickly turning eggs, flipping pancakes, making toast while she makes sure the soup is on for the lunchtime crowd.
“I’ve always liked to cook,” Linda says. She collects cookbooks and clips recipes from magazines – many that she never uses, she laughs.
She doesn’t experiment too much with her menu, because her customers have certain favorites.
“They like the old fashioned meat loaf and pot roast,” she says. The specials, however, often change based on the season – especially because so many of her customers are farmers and gardeners.
“In the fall I get a lot of stuff from them,” she says. An abundance of any particular vegetable usually finds its way into the special of the day, especially when it comes to soups.
However, there are no specials on weekends, she says. The café is extremely busy on Saturday especially, with families lining up outside for their turns to come inside and fill their bodies and souls with Linda’s cooking.
Sunday is a breakfast-only day – no lunch items are served, she says.
Then there is Monday.
Monday is apple fritter day. That can’t change, Linda says, because “people just love them.”
Fritter day actually happened by accident. “I forgot to order bread one Sunday.” She needed some sort of toast substitute – and after a frantic search through every ingredient she had, batter-coated and deep fried apples dipped in cinnamon and sugar, did the trick.
“Then we just made Monday apple fritter day,” she says.
One of Linda’s specialties is a German apple pancake that takes about 40 minutes to cook – but is well worth the wait.
The pancake isn’t really a pancake at all, but a sort of apple pie-crisp-cake-pancake rolled into one.
It fills a large dinner plate, and can easily feed two or three people. Linda makes homemade “top secret” apple syrup to drizzle over the top. The syrup is a bright red concoction that adds amazing flavor to the cinnamon-enhanced pancake.
Between the customers and the cooking, Linda loves what she does.
“We have a lot of fun. It’s a lot of work, but we have a lot of fun,” she says.
“It’s very self-satisfying at the end of the day…I really enjoy my customers.
“It’s like having company every day,” she says.
“I always wanted to do it (have a café) all my life. I did it, so now I can die happy.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2007/08 edition of Panache Magazine, published by Southern Lakes Newspapers.