Brian Dujmovich and Lorrie Reaves bought the longstanding Rhodes Café in the Lakeway Center early this year. They are working to keep the café that locals know and love alive while adding increasingly more organic and local ingredients to the menu.
What brought you and Lorrie to Bellingham?
I was born and raised here in Bellingham. This is the second time I have moved back. The first time I came back to raise my kids and was here from 1999 to 2010. In 2010 I took a job with Frito Lay down in the South Seattle area. Then I moved to the Everett area but really wanted to get back to Bellingham. I even thought about commuting. Lorrie is a realtor in Bellingham and a Northwest girl as well—she grew up in Granite Falls. She and I met in Bellingham seven years ago. We were looking for a home and this business was listed in the residential multiple listing. I was a customer here from 1999 to 2010 and I had always wanted to own a restaurant. So I said, “Lorrie, we’re gonna have to put the house on hold and we are buying Rhodes Café.”
You were shopping for a house and found a restaurant instead?
Yep. I was wanting to move back to Bellingham and thought, there we go—now I don’t have to commute the hour back and forth.
So you were a fan and a customer for eleven years. How much of the restaurant and menu did you change?
We haven’t changed any of the interior yet. We wanted the restaurant to be open around the same time as Whole Foods, so remodeling has been put on hold.
We have kept the menu about ninety-nine percent the same but we have added some new things and have changed some of the ingredients. We added gluten-free bread. We added Tony’s Coffee (which is organic). Just last week we did an organic spinach salad special. We changed our Avoglemono, which is a Greek lemon rice and chicken soup to an organic dish. So we are playing with the recipes that way and we are adding things like Corn Beef Hash, and Salmon dishes. Right now we are working on an Organic Sweet Potato Hash. I’ve got the organic sausage from the Co-op, organic potatoes, organic coconut oil.
It is still good, homestyle food. We’re never going to be fancy. I’m not a chef but any stretch of the imagination. I am just a person who loves to cook for a room full of people. This hasn’t even been like work. There hasn’t been one day where I come in and feel like I am working. It’s fun to be in the kitchen hearing people laughing and seeing clean plates coming back. So we’re gonna work down that path of Paleo, natural and as organic as we can.
You said you were brought back to Bellingham twice. I hear that story a lot. What about Bellingham was drawing you back?
Well my son is in the Redmond area but my daughter still lives up here. My granddaughter lives here. My brother, sister and parents still live here. On my mom’s side we have a reunion every three years and we typically have over 200 people who come to our family reunion. So family drew me back but also there just isn’t a better place to live. Plain and simple. I’m drawn to it every time I move away.
Diversity. We are not very diverse ethnically, but there is a diversity of thought. I like that there is a lot of different thinking and a lot of different types of people here. It’s a relaxing place with all of the access to the outdoors. It also has that small town feel.
I just had two customers stay forty-five minutes after we closed. That’s Bellingham. Everyone is friendly. I’ve never had a bad experience meeting someone here. In bigger cities it’s not the same.
People come into a place like this—hole in the wall type of restaurant—who are worth millions of dollars. Then we have a couple customers who are homeless. They come in here once a week with the money that they have. There are those who just barely scraped together ten dollars for breakfast but most of the time you can’t tell the difference. That’s something that I learned a long time ago—you never know who you are sitting across from. And that’s fun. In Bellingham there’s not a lot of pretentious people around. We have a lot in common here. We’re down to earth and most of us love the outdoors.
What’s the best kept secret in Bellingham. What’s the spot or organization that the world needs to know about?
Well, I don’t want to give away secrets! [Laughs]
How well the diversity of thought works here. The people with all different backgrounds. Bellingham is just a great melting pot of ideas and people. There’s no secret place to go. Not anymore.
When I was a kid I thought there were secret places—Whatcom Falls Park, Teddy Bear Cove, Cub Creek, and Clayton Beach. But those things are secrets anymore. The Farmer’s Market isn’t a secret. The Breweries are not secret. There used to be one brewery—Orchard Street. Then came Boundary Bay which actually used to be a gym that I went to thirty years ago.
So you guys are open for breakfast and lunch. Let’s say you close in afternoon, everything is cleaned, locked up, and it’s a beautiful day like this. Where do you spend the rest of your day?
We love Boulevard, Padden, Nooksack River—either the South or the North Fork.
We usually start the day in the gym. Lorrie is there at four in the morning every day.
I guess you have to if you run a breakfast joint.
Yeah. [Laughs] I would rather go there in the evenings.
But other than that we go out and try to get together with family as much as we can. We have barbeques at home or down at the water. The water is the king.
What has surprised you about owning a restaurant so far? Is it what you expected?
What surprised me the most is having to be so knowledgeable about equipment. Because it’s not just old things that need attention—you expect those things to break down. But I have a prep table that is a year old and anytime I hear a little noise I have to start investigating. I have to figure out plumbing, electrical, and lighting. Once I was here I realized there is no janitor, no electrician and it’s my job to try to fix things or else pay someone else a lot money to fix them.
I was a sales manager in the beer and wine industry for a number of years. I used to write a lot of orders for restaurants and taverns. The thing that I forgot, which is on the front of my mind now, is ordering. Just when you think you’ve got people figured out they stop buying what you think they are going to buy. It seems like people wait outside the doors and say, “ok, we’re all gonna order french toast today” when I haven’t sold french toast in three days. I will dump my batter everyday and think why do I even bother with french toast when I only sell it on the weekends—that’s the day when my first three orders are french toast. That’s when I realize I forgot to order the special bread for french toast. Or I make a special and expect everyone to order it but hear crickets. Nothing makes you feel worse than that. One of the first things I did was a sausage, onion, and mushroom scramble with pepper jack cheese. I had it on special for two weeks with no sales. The next week I called it and omelette and sold one. I took it off the menu for six weeks then brought it back this Wednesday and I have been selling five or six a day since.
What have the regulars said to you?
The first thing they said to me was, “Don’t change the coffee.”
Oh, and you did change that!
At that point I didn’t have plans to change the coffee. There were other things I wanted to focus on. Then Walton Beverage, which is a local, family-run business came to me a month later and said, “guess what we’re now selling—Tony’s.”
If I am going to make a change it is going to be in the direction of more local ingredients. It was a no-brainer. We played around with the recipe, put it out there, and I haven’t heard one complaint. I have heard nothing but positive feedback. To the best of my knowledge I haven’t lost anyone because of the coffee. George, the previous owner, came in and saw the new fancy coffee maker, tasted the coffee and said, “Oh, that’s pretty good. It doesn’t taste a whole lot different.” And he actually poured himself a second cup.
I knew right from the beginning that I was going to bring in Hempler’s. I went to school with one of the sons. Keston who’s running the company now went to school with my brother. My mom went to school with Dick Hempler. We grew up going to the BB Meat and Sausage getting pepperoni sticks when we were kids. I get most of my meat from Claus Meats. My dad went to school with the original owner of Claus. My sister worked for Walton Beverage for a time. This is a local business doing business with other local businesses. We hope to get some cheese in here from a local purveyor. I would like to continue to buy from the Co-op and eventually buy all of my produce there. I don’t think that people realize how affordable their prices are. We do what we can.
Is dinner in the future?
No. I do not want to do dinner because I need to have a life. In a beautiful place like this you have to be able to go outside. This was the perfect business for me to get into.
Did George and Judy, the previous owners, retire?
Yes, they retired. Judy still comes in every friday with a group of ladies who were customers of hers for twenty years. They are a table of eight retired Carl Cozier teachers who comes in every week. She used to serve them, and now she can sit down and eat with them.
There are a lot of regulars. There is a Rotary Club that comes in once a month. There’s a bike club—pedal bike not motorcycle—that comes in. Then there are just couples that have been coming here for twenty plus years. There is a young couple that orders food to go every Saturday—she came here as a kid. That’s what makes this place the wonderful place that it is. George and Judy were family people and made this a nice family joint with great customers. There has been no fussiness and no pretentious types.
I have been around a lot of Whole Foods stores and I’m not sure that that customer’s actually gonna come in here. Hopefully the person who is looking for good, wholesome, natural food will come in and give us a try. The customer that is looking for a good image will probably look in the doors and go, oh that’s not for me.