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Bottom Line: The Shyrl in Shyrl’s Diner marks a milestone birthday

  • From left, Shyrl Rafus, her great-niece Erica Aftowski and her granddaughter Kaleigh Wagar look at a photo of a customer's newborn baby at Shyrl's Diner in West Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. The baby was born the day after Rafus' 75th birthday. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

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    Birthday decorations hang around the restaurant as Shyrl Rafus, center, prepares orders at Shyrl's Diner in West Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. Rafus' granddaughter Kaleigh Wagar told her they were going apple picking to celebrate her 75th birthday, but instead they went to the diner where 175 family members, friends and customers were waiting to greet her. "We never went apple picking," Rafus said. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

  • Family photos hang on the fridge at Shyrl's Diner in West Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. Several of owner Shyrl Rafus' family members work at the diner with her, including her daughter, son, granddaughter and great-niece. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

  • Lindsey Covell, right, of White River Junction, Vt., hugs her aunt, Shyrl Rafus, as she arrives for lunch at Shyrl's Diner with her daughter Azriel Covell, left, of Lebanon, N.H., in West Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 10/16/2021 10:02:01 PM
Modified: 10/16/2021 10:02:01 PM

On the second Sunday of October, Kaleigh Wagar told her grandmother, Shyrl’s Diner owner Shyrl Rafus, that they were going apple picking to celebrate Rafus’ 75th birthday. But first they had to swing by the diner on Main Street in West Lebanon because Wagar had left her phone there.

As they pulled up Rafus saw through the windows that the restaurant was packed with customers — which she thought was a little odd given that it was past the 2 p.m. closing time.

“I open the door and everyone says, ‘Happy birthday!’ I thought I was going apple picking,” Rafus said last week during the breakfast shift at her diner, the counter still crowded with vases of flowers and a bouquet of balloons tied to the refrigerator behind her. “I had no idea.”

The event, which drew 175 friends, customers and family, was organized by Wagar through a “secret Facebook page” she had set up as an invitation to honor her grandmother and the family matriarch whose diner — if you count Wagar’s 9-year old son who likes to hand menus to newly arrived customers from his perch at the counter — now involves four generations of Rafus’ family.

For the most part, Shyrl’s, where Rafus’ daughter Debra also works in addition to two granddaughters, is a woman-operated business. And it’s pretty much always been that way since 2005, according to Rafus, when she opened Shyrl’s after helping her niece run the former Crossroads Cafe in White River Junction.

“When I started, my ex-husband told me I was going to be out of business in six months,” Rafus said.

“When that didn’t happen, he decided it was time to move on,” she said, before smiling. “Well, whatever.”

Shyrl’s serves about 300 customers per day — the first ones trickle in shortly after Rafus arrives at work at 3 a.m. for baking and the day’s prep work, even though the diner does not officially open until 5 a.m. She typically works straight through to closing at 2 p.m. six days a week (the diner is closed on Tuesdays) and there’s another 30 minutes to a hour for cleanup.

Bedtime for Rafus is 6 p.m. sharp because she wakes up at 2:30 a.m., she said.

“She opens the place and closes the place,” said marveling longtime customer Stacey Thomson, who runs an Orford-based timber, trucking and excavation company, calling her “one amazing person who feeds a lot of mouths.”

Thomson is typical among Shyrl’s customers, who tend to be retirees or workers and business owners in the “dirty jobs” trades who come for the diner’s no-frills menu — burgers, omelets, sandwiches, homemade soups and baked pies — and throwback prices (most items run $4 to $7; the most expensive is a plate of scallops that will set you back $10).

“Everybody tells me I should raise my prices,” Rafus said, but many of her customers are retirees on fixed incomes or hourly wage earners who “can’t buy a $30 lunch.”

“I’m here to make a living and pay my bills. I’m not here to be a millionaire,” she said.

At 75, Rafus said she’s giving no thought to retirement.

“I’m just going to keep plugging away. I live by myself, so I have to keep working. I like to eat. I like the finer things in life. And Social Security doesn’t cover it,” she explained.

Rafus’ day is filled with a rapid fire of her trademark “Hi, honey” and “Bye, honey” as customers come and go, often to the same people only a few hours apart.

“A lot of them come at breakfast time and then come back at lunchtime,” said Rafus, who estimates “about 75% of my customers are regulars.”

Shyrl’s may even be an economic engine of sorts for the north end of West Lebanon, drawing people to the Main Street strip lined with small stores and businesses that rely on walk-in customers.

“On Tuesdays when we are closed, Main Street is dead,” Rafus said. “I’ve had a lot of people tell me that.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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