Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Perkins in Maplewood has offered more than just pancakes and pie. It will serve its last meal Sunday.

Every morning, Lou Cotroneo drives from his senior-living apartment in Oakdale to the Perkins just off White Bear Avenue in Maplewood. He usually has a bowl of oatmeal first, followed by either a waffle, pancake or fruit.

He also gets conversation from the restaurant’s servers.

“I went to school with Abraham Lincoln,” Cotroneo, a 91-year-old former Johnson High teacher and hockey coaching legend, joked on Friday. “So every day is a bonus.”

Deb Pedro, who has owned the Perkins since 2002, said Cotroneo and other regular customers have made the restaurant what it is: a place for them to not only go for pancakes and pie, but to talk, gossip, read a newspaper and even play poker. And that’s why Pedro is concerned for them these days.

Pedro has spent her entire 42-year restaurant career with Perkins, but will call it quits come 3 pm Sunday, when the 68-year-old closes the doors for good and enters retirement. But she is not thinking of herself right now.

“I’m worried about these guys, especially Lou,” she said. “He does the same thing every day. He comes here for breakfast and goes to Obb’s for lunch. We need to put in a plea for other restaurants to adopt our people.”

‘THE TIME WAS RIGHT’

Pedro just recently decided to put her restaurant at 1829 N. St. Paul Road up for sale, and the business next door, Unison Restaurant and Banquet, scooped it up. She said the time was right. She’s gotten tired – exhausted, actually – from the long days that came with running her place. And her franchise agreement with Perkins is up in September.

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“I would have to re-up, and you have to pay to re-up, and there’s a minimum of what I think is five years,” she said. “And I’m not ready to sign up for five more years.”

It’ll be a tough exit.

“I’m going to miss the customers,” said Pedro, a resident of St. Paul’s East Side. “I’m going to miss the chit-chat. I’m going to miss the stories. I’m going to miss the frustration.”

THE PANDEMIC

And there’s been enough of that since March 2020, thanks to COVID-19 and the shutdown and restrictions that followed and caused her to lose customers, staff and money.

“It will never be the same in the restaurant industry,” she said. “And I don’t think a lot of it has to do with the actual COVID virus. I think it has to do with how it has changed people’s lives, their eating and dining habits.”

But the pandemic also showed what the restaurant means to its patrons and the community. When Pedro was forced to close the dining room, it just her and a cook doing take-out orders because she couldn’t pay her other employees. Then people realized she was struggling and gave her their support.

“Customers would drop off envelopes with money in them,” she said, then shook her head.

Help came from local Lions clubs, too. For two decades, Pedro has been active with the St. Paul East Parks Lions Club, which has held bi-monthly meetings at the restaurant for about 10 years. She is also a past district governor.

“One club bought $3,000 worth of gift cards during COVID, another club bought $300 worth,” she said. “They all ordered pies. They got food to go. Every club that’s in this darn district came in and spent money.”

“I KNOW EVERYONE WHO WALKS IN THESE DOORS’

Deb Pedro, top right, and longtime server Victoria Nichols enjoy a laugh with customers at the Maplewood Perkins on North St.  Paul Road on Wednesday, March 23, 2022.
Deb Pedro, top right, and longtime server Victoria Nichols enjoy a laugh with customers. (John Autey/Pioneer Press)

Pedro employs 15 people – hosts, dishwashers, cooks and servers, including Victoria Nichols. She started working at the restaurant as a busgirl when she was a 14-year-old North High freshman and when it was Hattie Maxwell’s. She’s now 47.

For 15 years, Nichols has driven from her home in Hastings – past many other Perkins – to get to work.

“There are lots of other Perkins, yes, but my people are not there and my relationships with them are not there,” she said. “I know everybody who walks in these doors and they know me.”

Guys like Wally Simonson, 88, and Dave Shanley, 75, who bring in zucchini and apples and give them to Nichols. She then bakes zucchini bread and apple crisp for them.

“We’re going to miss Victoria and Deb, everyone here,” said Simonson, who sat with Shanley at their usual spot in the back of the restaurant’s atrium one morning this week. They used to sit with a group of 15 or so other regulars, “but they all died,” Simonson said. “I guess we’re the originals.”

Nation World News Desk
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