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Shyrl’s Diner Owner Fights to Keep Restaurant in Place as Building Goes Up for Sale

  • Shyrl Rafus, left works with her daughter Debra Wagar behind the grill during breakfast at Shyrl's Diner in West Lebanon, N.H., on July 12, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Breakfast regulars, David Ufford, of Lebanon, N.H., left, Lincoln Divoll, of Rockingham, Vt., and Norm MacDonald, of Wilder, Vt., talk and eat at Shyrl's Diner in West Lebanon, N.H. on July 12, 2017. Many of them are at the diner every day it is open, six days a week. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Shyrl Rafus hugs customer Fran Drake, of Lebanon, N.H. on his way out of her diner after eating breakfast on July 12, 2017. Drake eats at Shyrl's Diner six days a week, every day it is open. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Shyrl's Diner owner Shyrl Rafus starts her day at the diner at 3 a.m. After the lunch rush she sat down for a few minutes to chat with frequent customer Lincoln Divoll, of Rockingham, Vt. on July 12, 2017 in West Lebanon, N.H. Divoll comes to the diner everyday they are open, often more then once a day. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Debra Wagar, left, her mother Shyrl Rafus, and her daughter Kaleigh Wagar share a laugh while working at Shyrl's Diner in West Lebanon, N.H., on July 12, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Jim Johnson, of West Lebanon is greeted by Debra Wagar in front of Shyrl's Diner in West Lebanon, N.H. on July 12, 2017. Wagar's mother owns the diner. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Owner of Shyrl's Diner, Shyrl Rafus works behind the counter on July 12, 2017 in West Lebanon, N.H. Eating their lunch at the counter are Bob Olcott, of West Lebanon, left, Michael Mills, of Plainfield, N.H., and Stacey Thomson, of Orford, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2017

West Lebanon — A wooden stool props open the front door. The aroma of bacon grease from the flat top grill hangs in the air as familiar faces greet each other with smiles, jokes and ribbing. Waitress Kaleigh Wagar darts among the tables with an order pad.

“Here you go,” says Wagar, handing a bagel and peanut butter sandwich in a Styrofoam container to Pete Edson on Friday morning before he heads out to a construction job. “That’ll be 83 cents.”

Edson peels off four single dollar bills as a tip and gives them them to Wagar. “”This is for your IRA,” he says.

Edson, who “grew up right here” in West Lebanon, says he stops into Shyrl’s Diner “multiple” times each week for breakfast. The reason is simple. Diner owner Shyrl Rafus “is a reminder of what West Lebanon used to be like: hard-working, friendly, simple. That is why people come here,”

And Shyrl’s Diner, adds Mike Blood, whose family operates Blood’s Catering, while sitting at the “regulars” table at the front window waiting for his scrambled eggs, bacon and toast to arrive, is “a good place to hang out and see all your friends. Shyrl runs a good show here. The food’s good and the prices are right.”

But the good show for the popular early morning breakfast stop among Upper Valley construction workers, mechanics and farmers faces an uncertain future.

The building in which Shyrl’s is located at 31 Main St. in West Lebanon is scheduled to be sold in a bank auction by Mascoma Savings Bank on Thursday (July 20). It’s the second of two adjacent properties formerly owned by Alex DeFelice Jr., who sold 35 Main St. in 2016 to Consign and Design Center owner Jana Gray.

DeFelice’s furniture business, which had last year moved to into Consign and Design Center’s former space at 14 Main St., closed a few weeks ago. DeFelice could not be reached for comment.

The prospect that the next owner might want to do something else with the building housing the restaurant distresses Shyrl’s patrons, many of whom are retirees and depend upon the small diner not only for a reasonably priced meal — the costliest item on the menu is tripe at $8.95; most lunch sandwiches run between $3.75 and $3.95 and most breakfasts $5.95 — but to catch up on the news and gossip with friends.

“We’ve been coming here ever since she opened,” said Ellie Downing, of Lebanon, who was finishing breakfast on Friday at a table against the back wall with her husband, Willis. Downing said she and her husband have breakfast at least “once a week” at Shyrl’s. “This is a good way for us to socialize. You get a good meal and see lots of friends. It’s like an extended family.”

To illustrate the point about the familial atmosphere at Shyrl’s, Downing asks: “Have you seen the women’s bathroom? Get them to show it you … wait, I can show it to you,” she volunteers as she gets up from the table and escorts a male visitor to the women’s bathroom.

Inside, pasted on the bathroom’s walls are 8’ x 10” hand-written notes from satisfied customers. “This place is as good as Ruthies in Ligonier, Pa.,” declares one signed in December 2014.

“Be nice for you may not be able to say sorry,” advises another in a shaky scrawl whose author identifies herself as “a 14-year old Jennie.”

“Hopefully, whoever buys the building will keep Shyrl here,” Downing says.

Shyrl (pronounced “Shir – ell”) Rafus, who grew up in South Royalton but now lives in White River Junction, says she is not fretting over the auction and even has a few loyal customers who she says plan on bidding at the auction in order to keep the diner going. The bank has set a minimum bid at $75,000 on the 2,180-square foot mixed-use building with a one-bedroom apartment on the second, which is assessed at $266,000 and had a 2016 tax bill of $7,500.

“My lease is until March 2018, but I have three to four people who are going to the auction to bid on it because they want me to stay,” the 70-year-old Rafus says.

One of them, Stacey Thomson, of Orford, says he’s on board.

“I’ll definitely be bidding on the building and I hope Shyrl stays there.” Thomson, who owns a timber, trucking and excavation business and stops into Shyrl’s for breakfast “a couple times a week” said he is impressed by Rafus’ work ethic.

Thomson, a grandson of the late Gov. Meldrim Thomson, said he also likes it when Shyrl’s staff wears one of the bright yellow T-shirts that advertise the name of his business, as they frequently do with other customers’ businesses.

Unlike a lot of restaurant owners, Rafus said it never had been her ambition to have her own place. “No, not really,” she replied when asked if she had always dreamed about owning a restaurant. “I opened this place 12 years ago when my niece, Donna Burnham, sold Crossroads Cafe in White River, where I had been assistant manager.”

Despite the sale, “we just weren’t ready to give up” working, Rafus explains (Burnham now fills in at Shyrl’s).

When DeFelice heard Rafus was looking for a place, he offered her the space at 31 Main St. in a building that he had bought from Clifford and Marie Ramunto, who ran a pizza shop on the ground floor.

“When I moved in the only thing that was here was a three-bay sink,” Rafus says. “I bought everything else.”

Restaurant work, as anyone who has ever worked in it knows, is grueling. Rafus wakes up at 2:30 a.m. six mornings a week to be at the diner by 3 a..m. to bake pies, breads and cookies for the coming day. She opens her door for customers at 5 a.m. and then is the solo worker until the next worker arrives at 7 a.m.

Nonetheless, customers begin showing up shortly after 5 a.m. and by 5:30 a.m. the front “regulars” table begins filling up with the usual suspects: Mike Romano of Romano Trucking, Interstate Tire owner Glen Crowe, Jim Roberts of Roberts Auto Service, Chick Henry of Upper Valley Equipment Rentals, Randy Gage of the Hanover Co-op, John Bergeron of Carroll Concrete, brothers Jim Longacre and Norm Longacre of Longacres Nursery, Jim Lawrence of Legendary Auto Worx, Dan Hughes of DG Auto Sales and Service, Louie LaBelle and Norm McDonald, both of White River Junction; Gerry Thibodeau and Fran Drake, both of Lebanon; and Nelson Foggs Sr. and Joe Trottier, both of Wilder.

To name a few.

Crowe calls breakfast at Shyrl’s “part of the routine. It’s hard to describe. You have to be there.”

And what does everyone talk about? Well, it doesn’t really matter, Romano said, because “we all lie to each other. Once in a while the truth comes out but it’s usually by accident.”

Shyrl’s is a family business, Rafus takes pride in pointing out.

Besides her granddaughter Kaleigh, Rafus’ daughter Debra Wagar works as a cook behind the counter. Rafus’ son, Chris Moye, washes dishes and granddaughter Stefani Wagar also works part-time and a niece, Julie Coates, lends a hand at times.

Burnham, who was Rafus’ boss at Crossroads Cafes, also comes in and “putters around,” Rafus says.

Lincoln Divoll, a retired insurance agent in Bellows Falls who spends time in the Upper Valley, comes in every morning for breakfast at 6:30 a.m.

“I call myself the second shift,” he jokes, after the first wave clears the front table. Divoll, who then drives 45 minutes to his farm in Rockingham, Vt., says he first started coming to Shyrl’s “about four years ago” because “I was probably complaining about the coffee somewhere else” and found the coffee at Shyrl’s “good and cheap.”

He came for the coffee but stayed for the food and conversation.

Now Divoll has a dish named after him, “The Lincoln Special,” made from scrambled eggs, sausage, and cheddar cheese. “Two of three of the other guys have it now,” he beams.

“I’ve always said coffee is the calling card,” Rafus says. “I get it from Allan’s Vending (in White River Junction) and there’s always somebody trying to sell me their coffee but I tell them, nope, got what I need, thanks.”

Rafus said she picked Tuesday as the day to be closed because when she opened Shyrl’s 12 years ago the main competition at the time, Four Aces on Bridge Street in West Lebanon and the Polka Dot in downtown White River Junction, were both closed on Monday.

“As long as everyone was closed on Monday, I’d be closed on Tuesday,” she says. (the Polka Dot is now closed and Four Aces is now open seven days a week).

The only days Rafus takes off and the diner is closed are on Christmas and Thanksgiving. The “closed” sign on the door also faces outward for a week in June when she goes to Maine for vacation.

“It seems like she never misses a day,” Thomson says.

Rafus says the hard work won’t make her rich but she’s doing OK.

“I pay my bills. I make a living,” Rafus says. “I’m not here to make a million bucks.”

Terry Martin, vice president of special assets management at Mascoma Savings Bank, said in an email that he couldn’t comment “on the transaction that placed the deed in the name” of the bank, nor could Mascoma hold a sale contingent upon the renewal of Shyrl’s Diner’s lease,

“While the bank holds Shyrl and her business in high regard, we are not in a position to stipulate terms of her lease for the next owner,” Martin said.

In the event that the building ends up in unfriendly hands and a new landlord wants to use the first floor for other purposes, “they are welcome to buy me out,” Rafus says but — she warns, banging the counter top — “they are also going to have to buy everything in here, too, it’s all mine.”

Shyrl’s long-time customers clearly hope it doesn’t come to that. They hope one of Rafus’ customers, or another supportive buyer, will step up to buy the building and renew Shyrl’s lease.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Crowe, the regular from Interstate Tire, says.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.