From the doorway, Cheryl Foelster's eyes lit up the moment she saw Kevin Howe seated at a nearby table.
"I need a great big hug from you," Foelster said, wrapping her arms around Howe. "I know that soon I won't get many more chances."
Indeed, the days of morning greets with customers are coming to a close for Howe and his wife, Karen. The Howes recently signed a contract turning over ownership of the County Line Cafe and Grille to another couple. With it comes the end a long culinary love affair that over time has made the Howes much more than just restaurant owners.
All of which makes the farewell both sweet and sad for the Howes. There's the pride of nurturing a tiny 40-seat eatery from humble beginnings into a respected dining establishment whose scratch-made fare is now known far beyond Hernando County's borders. But there's also the finality of leaving their customers, many of whom, Kevin Howe says, are almost like family.
"Not seeing my customers every day, that's probably the toughest part," Howe, 45, said on a recent morning as he sipped a cup of coffee shortly after the breakfast rush. "People are more than just your living in this business. They become the reason you get out of bed in the morning."
Howe is still getting out of bed to come to the diner that he and his wife have run for 10 years, only his role now is more that of a short-term consultant for new owners Christine Tresignie and her husband, Michael Debusscher. Howe said the couple, who are from Belgium, have a knack for the restaurant business, and are eager to pick up where he and his wife left off, with no immediate plans for big changes.
"We were very particular who we sold to," Howe said. "This was our life — our blood, sweat and tears. The people who come to eat here are very special to us. We know we're leaving them in good hands."
Like Tresignie and Debusscher, the Howes were no strangers to the restaurant business when they bought the County Line Cafe and Grille in July 2000. Kevin had spent most of his adult life working in commercial kitchens, and for more than a decade was a chef in some of the Florida Keys' toniest dining establishments. Karen had spent years in the hospitality industry as well. Having their own place gave them the opportunity to finally put their instinctive knowledge to work for themselves.
Located in a nondescript strip shopping center on U.S. 19, just north of County Line Road in an area populated largely by retirees, the Howes lucked out in that the place already had a fairly busy breakfast and lunch business. Their genuinely hospitable nature and attention to detail helped to create a special relationship with their clientele.
"If you're in the business just to make money, forget it," Kevin Howe said. "If you care about people, it goes deeper than that."
The Howes watched over their customers like shepherds. They celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, and even grieved with them over the loss of loved ones.
"A lot of them didn't have family in the area, so we became that," Howe said. "If we didn't see someone for a couple of days, we would call around to find out why."
And if a customer was laid up by illness or surgery, the Howes gladly stopped by with hot meals.
But it was Kevin Howe's prowess in the kitchen that kept customers coming back. Though traditional fare such as meatloaf, roast chicken, and spaghetti and meatballs was always on the menu, he created sumptuous special dishes at the drop of a chef's hat.
Last year, one of those recipes earned the restaurant national fame.
A customer who had tasted Howe's sesame-lime grilled pork tenderloin thought it so delicious that he entered it in the Ultimate Hometown Grill-Off competition on the Live! With Regis and Kelly morning television show. Howe was unaware he had been entered until he was contacted by the show's producers, who wanted him to submit an instructional video to be used on the show.
From there, Howe's fortunes took off. After making it through the first round, he earned enough viewer votes to advance to the finals, where he lost to a barbecue specialty restaurant in Mississippi.
"It was definitely a high point in our lives — that a little 40-seat restaurant in Spring Hill could attract that much attention," Howe said. "It was wonderful experience."
Things have not always been so wonderful. Like many mom-and-pop restaurants, County Line struggled during the recession of the past few years as customers chose to cut back on dining out. To save money on extra kitchen labor, the couple put in longer hours, which kept them from spending more time with their 9-year-old daughter, Ronnie.
By December, the Howes knew they were ready for a change.
Said Kevin Howe: "We had a 10-year goal when we started, and we both realized we had reached it."
Howe said that once he leaves the restaurant sometime in the next couple of weeks, his plans are up in the air. One idea includes starting a culinary arts school with class sizes limited to no more than six or eight students. He has also considered opening an organic specialty restaurant, an idea he believes Hernando County is finally ready for.
When asked if he would consider returning to the County Line Cafe and Grille as a customer, Howe answered without hesitation.
"Absolutely," he said with a smile. "I hear the food is pretty good there."
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.