YACOLT - Call it kismet, serendipity or plain weird luck – the events leading up to Cathy Carr and Cherrie Smith’s arrival in Yacolt are beyond the realm of pure coincidence.
“So many miracles lined up for this to happen,” says Carr, looking around the two women’s new business, the Whistle Stop Family Restaurant in downtown Yacolt. “It’s a good story!”
The story goes something like this: Having spent many years in the corporate restaurant business at various Shari’s Restaurant franchises throughout the Vancouver area, Carr and Smith decide they want to branch out, start their own restaurant and focus on quality, homemade ingredients and superior customer service. The goal was simple, but getting there was more complex.
“We thought about doing food carts, but decided we’d rather have a restaurant,” Smith says. “And that very day, I heard about a restaurant for sale in Yacolt.”
Once a landmark in the small Yacolt community, the restaurant – which sits directly across from the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad terminal at 206 N. Railroad Ave., in the heart of Yacolt – has gone through several owners and name changes since Buddy’s Whistle Stop closed in June of 2012.
As luck would have it, the week Smith discovered that the restaurant, formerly known as Your Double Bar L Family Cafe, was for sale, Carr had found a flyer for the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.
“She had just said, ‘I want to go take a ride on that railroad,’” Smith says of her business partner. “Then we get here, to check out the restaurant, and there’s the railroad!”
Feeling that fate had led them to the right spot, the women jumped at the chance to revitalize the old Whistle Stop restaurant – one of the only places to eat in Yacolt aside from the BackRoads Food and Spirits tavern and the deli counter at the local market.
Two months later, they’d employed a longtime friend and cook, Rick Aggerholm from Longview, and the trio had moved to Yacolt to start a new life and bring homestyle cooking back to North Clark County.
Friends and family, including Smith’s family who had been visiting from Oklahoma, helped prepare the restaurant for its mid-July opening, and the women whipped themselves into high gear. Nearly two months into it, Carr and Smith say they’re constantly amazed by the Yacolt community’s goodness.
On a wall inside the restaurant hangs a quilted piece of art with the Whistle Stop’s name sewed into it, a gift from a customer who said she just wanted to see Carr and Smith succeed with their new business.
“People here have been so generous,” Smith says. “They’re just so supportive and friendly. We love it here.”
The two women split the responsibilities. Carr, a natural people person, takes the front room role, handling orders like a pro and making instant friends with every person who wanders into the Whistle Stop. Smith is in the back, taking over as the cook when Aggerholm is off, and baking daily dessert specials like blackberry cobbler and peanut butter cheesecake.
Although they opened the restaurant at a less-than-ideal time – after Yacolt’s major summertime festivals and just in time for the rainy winter season to get started – Carr and Smith are confident that their attention to quality ingredients, homestyle cooking, friendly customer service and consistent daily hours will gain a loyal following.
Carr and Smith fell in love with the volunteer-powered Chelatchie Prairie Railroad, located just across the street from the Whistle Stop. Not only do they promote the railroad’s special events on the back half of their in-house menus and have railroad-themed menu items like the “conductor chili burger” and the “train robbery vegetarian omelette,” Carr and Smith also hope to tie their business to the railroad, perhaps providing boxed meals that passengers can take along for their train ride or doing cross-promotional events throughout the county and greater Portland/Vancouver metro area.
“I can’t believe how few people know about the railroad,” Carr says. “I’ve been telling everyone I know that they have to come take a ride.”
The new Whistle Stop opens every day at 7 a.m., offers a full breakfast menu until 11 a.m., then serves lunch and dinner until 8 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Menu items include hearty, homestyle food like country fried steak, biscuits and country sausage gravy, cinnamon rolls, burgers and fries, house-made meatloaf, burgundy beef tips over rice and homemade chili. The restaurant also offers an outdoor seating area, daily dessert and entree specials and a “Choo-Choo Menu” for kids age 12 and younger.
Both Carr and Smith say the restaurant is a dream come true for them, but Carr is especially beholden to the Whistle Stop.
“I live upstairs and I come down here each morning and say, ‘Good morning, restaurant,’ and I’m so thankful to have this,” Carr says. “Sometimes it makes me cry, thinking about it.”
The restaurant reminds Carr of another life, one she left more than 20 years ago, after her young son, David, then only 7 years old, died in a tragic accident. Carr had been running a community-style restaurant with friends in Onalaska WA, at the time and has been chasing that feeling of belonging every since. With the Whistle Stop, Carr says, she’s finally found her reason for getting up in the morning.
“Everyone needs to have something like this, something to build a life off of, whether it’s family or friends or work or a home,” Carr says. “For me, what comes from my heart, my reason for living I guess, is this place.”
Glancing at Smith, who is tearing up hearing her friend talk so lovingly about their joint business venture, Carr adds that she believes fate brought her to this little Yacolt restaurant.
“I’m blessed to have one of the best business partners you could ask for,” Carr says. “And I can truly say that, having already lived through the worst days of my life, I’ve been given a second chance with this restaurant. A second chance to live my dream.”
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