Sequim’s restaurant ritual for many hungry customers just lost one long-time staple.
Gwennie Thornton recently decided to retire and close her Gwennie’s Restaurant at 701 E. Washington St., on Sunday, Sept. 18.
Consistent crowds and recurring customers showered Thornton with hugs, thank you’s, and cards while ordering their favorite dishes one last time.
Claud Skeen has enjoyed Gwennie’s since moving to Sequim from Lake Tahoe, Nev., two years ago. He started coming after his son suggested it and found that he likes the people at the restaurant a lot. Skeen ordered two berry cobblers as a special goodbye.
Sam Smith and Louise Goff have eaten at Gwennie’s for years.
“We tried it one day and loved it,” Smith said.
“They have good pies and consistent food,” Goff said. “We never had to worry about bad food.”
Smith recalls a time he tried to reserve a table some years ago. He phoned in and said he’d like to reserve a table for Sam Smith and Louise Goff. The waitress couldn’t understand him, so Smith repeated himself. The waitresses paused and responded, “We don’t have that kind of fish, sorry.”
Thornton said since she opened the restaurant, some people come once or twice a day for meals.
“They supported me all these years,” she said. “They are really nice people and really easy to get along with.”
Some customers joked with her, saying they wanted to come to her house for meals.
Thornton made the decision to retire six weeks ago. She’s selling her home and moving to Cottonwood, Idaho, to be closer to her daughter.
“I need a break,” she said.
For years, her ritual included getting up at 5 a.m., taking care of chores and going to work. Opening a restaurant in Idaho is a possibility, she said, but only maybe and definitely after a break.
Dave Anstett, owner of the Mariner Café and Evergreen Collision Center, bought the restaurant’s property and couldn’t be reached for comment on the future of the site.
Word about the closing quietly got out to long-time customers, but Thornton said she didn’t want a send-off.
“I’m not really that kind of person,” she said. “I just wanted to slip away.”
The Gwennie’s Restaurant legacy began long before Thornton moved to Sequim.
She first opened Gwennie’s Diner in Anchorage, Alaska, in the late 1960s and operated it until selling it in 1979. She opened three other restaurants — Diamond Jim’s Saloon in 1977, the Old Alaska Restaurant in 1979 and Gwennie’s BBQ in Muldoon, Alaska, in 1980.
Thornton sold the businesses and moved to Sequim. She bought Crazy Eric’s hamburger joint in 1986 and started Gwennie’s Restaurant.
Sequim’s area and climate were appealing to Thornton, who liked the mountains and fishing without the harsh Alaskan winters.
The restaurant was once open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. After the Sequim bypass was installed and less traffic flowed to East Washington Street, it stayed open from early morning to mid-afternoon, Thornton said.
The food remained the same with about a dozen alternating specials.
Thornton said customers stayed the same except for a stream of tourists in the summer.
Even the employees stuck with Gwennie’s, like long-time waitresses Sue Schlichting, Rhonda Zuzich and Amanda Brown. Zuzich and Brown are mother and daughter. Brown began work at the diner while she was in high school.
Pamela Rhodefer cooked at Gwennie’s for 25 years.
“We’re almost like mother/daughter,” Thornton said. “We think a lot alike.”
Rhodefer said her favorite dish, and one many others enjoyed, was the chicken fried steak, but people seemed to love all the food. She feels the restaurant has brought a consistency and good old home cooking to Sequim.
For now, employees are considering their career options and some customers said they aren’t sure where they are going to eat next.
Thornton said she’d miss the restaurant business for a little while.
“I want to thank everybody for their support,” she said. “I’m going to have a fun retirement.”