Tommy’s Dutch Lunch: Never Leave Hungry

Aleida Fernandez

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Photo by Tanner Bowersox

When I first walk into Tommy’s Dutch Lunch, a small greasy spoon down W. Pine St., it’s immediately obvious that the restaurant is a place full of stories. The decor is straight out of the 1970s and the walls are littered with paintings and a Union Bulletin profile from a few years ago. It’s also immediately obvious that Tommy’s –– as it’s affectionately called –– is a place full of love.

When I sit down with Amy McMann, Tommy’s fifth owner, she is surrounded by a group of friends just finishing up their lunch. They are getting ready to leave when one of the group members nudges me. He tells me something that will become the unofficial mantra of the interview.

“If you leave hungry, it’s your own fault,” he says.

McMann jokingly rolls her eyes.

“Ignore the peanut gallery,” she says.

A Boxer and a Restaurant

Photo by Tanner Bowersox

Tommy’s Dutch Lunch was opened by Tommy Gardner and his wife Helen in 1934. A local middleweight boxer, Gardner delivered dry cleaning while Helen ran the restaurant. The original restaurant was just a counter and the kitchen, which served the original “Dutch Lunch”: potato salad, cut meats, cheese, rye breads and a make-your-own sandwich.

Soon after Gardner was forced to quit boxing due to contracting polio, the restaurant began to flourish. Gardner joined Helen full-time at the restaurant, but the couple divorced just a few years later. Gardner married his second wife, Dolly, and they continued to run the business until they retired in 1971. After their retirement, the business was handed over to three other owners, until McMann bought Tommy’s in 1999.

McMann grew up on a farm in the Eureka area. As a child, her parents were fond of Tommy’s and brought her to the restaurant frequently. McMann had always been a hard worker and fast learner, so when the restaurant went up for sale in 1999 her father asked her if she had ever thought about owning a restaurant.

“I said, ‘What part of the rocker did you fall off of?'” McMann recalls. “That was September of 1999. My first official day was November of that year.”

From the start, McMann took on everything. She learned how to cook in two weeks by shadowing one of the cooks and then continued as wait staff, cleaner, cook, delivery truck driver or anything that was needed. It was very soon into her tenure, however, that McMann realized that work was not the only thing she bought herself when she purchased Tommy’s; a loyal constituent was also part of the deal.

“It’s the People.”

Sitting with us during the interview is Sharon Wilson. Wilson met McMann seven years ago when Wilson’s husband called up the restaurant to ask about their soup of the day.

“What do you want?” the waitress responded.

Photo by Tanner Bowersox

When they arrived at the restaurant, Wilson asked if she could help McMann behind the counter –– it’s a tradition at Tommy’s that if someone asks to help, they are put to work. Wilson and McMann took a liking to each other and have been friends ever since. Wilson continues to work at Tommy’s, running small errands for McMann. It’s obvious from the moment that Wilson starts talking about McMann that there is a lot of love and respect between the two. Oh, and Wilson assured me the soup that day was delicious. 

Many years ago, W. Pine St. was the old US-12 highway, and the bustling road was dotted with canneries and other farm vocations. Workers from these businesses would come to Tommy’s for their cheap coffee and big breakfast. When US-12 became Pine St., the canneries closed, but Tommy’s retained a loyal following. This was due in part to McMann’s communal and welcoming atmosphere. There is a “community table” at the front of the restaurant that anyone can sit at and eat a meal with Tommy’s staff or other members of the community. Patrons can also sit at the counter that overlooks the kitchen where it is not uncommon to receive a challenge or two from the cooks.

“In my early days, I’d see if people could flip the pancake,” said McMann.

Today, Tommy’s is mostly packed with farmers, construction workers, the recently and not-so-recently widowed and penitentiary workers from the new training facility down the road. Some workers from the old canneries still stop by for coffee every Tuesday morning. Students from Walla Walla University and Whitman College make up another set of customers, if only for a few years.

“A lot of hungover students come here,” says McMann with a wink. “You can tell because they always order water first –– but don’t print that!”

While Tommy’s is a small establishment, McMann and Wilson agree that it’s the people who make Tommy’s the most rewarding.

“Even if you come by yourself,” said Wilson, “you don’t end up by yourself because there’s so many people here.”

They identify the two men eating behind us as a couple of regulars. When I leave after my interview, the older gentleman stops me in the parking lot to chat about Tommy’s. Gary (he did not provide his last name) works down the road and has come here with two of his boys about once a month for the last 30 years. It’s the big personality and bigger food that he likes best. He’s also never left hungry.

Never Leave Hungry

Photo by Tanner Bowersox

When I return Saturday morning for breakfast, waiter Lee Mercado jokes around with me as if I was a regular. It’s a busy morning and the community table and counter seats are completely full with regulars. Throughout our interview, McMann and Wilson had raved about the pancakes but warned me that I better specify the size I want. She laughs as she recalls one time when a customer told her they wanted a “big” pancake, so she made it as big as a serving tray. I decide to give them a try –– no specification of size. When the meal comes out, it’s immediately obvious she wasn’t kidding around.

After breakfast, the community table has opened up, so, stuffed from my meal, I sit down to chat. Community members Archie Reid and married couple Kris and Rich Eagon are there waiting for their breakfast. Reid and the Eagons are regulars who met each other through the community table and bonded over politics and eggs. They joke with me for a while before they explain why they started coming to Tommy’s.

“It’s quantity, not quality,” jokes Reid. “[It’s] a reasonable amount of money for a lot of food.”

Kris gives a more serious answer.

“It’s a good place to come and be with your friends,” says Kris. “Doesn’t matter who’s here.”

Their food comes out, and I ask them –– just to be certain –– if they’ve ever left Tommy’s hungry. Laughing, they take a bite of their eggs.

Photo by Tanner Bowersox

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