VALRICO — On Tuesday, her first official day of retirement, Brunchery owner Kevyn Farley takes a seat in the restaurant she's owned and operated for 30 1/2 years and the community connection she has established immediately becomes evident.
As the lunch hour winds down,customers bid her adieu and promise not to cry. One guest hugs her once and hugs her again. Another brings Farley a belated birthday gift. It's a present for the presence she's maintained seemingly forever in the lives of Brandon area families.
From the original location on Oakfield Drive to her newer, bigger site in Valrico across from Lithia Springs Elementary, Farley always managed to serve up delicious meals with a bit of vim and vigor for the regulars, often memorizing their favorites.
Now she has sold the eatery to Stanley Athan for a chance to decompress, spend more time with her husband Bill and her three sons, and abandon the frenetic pace that has driven her since Feb. 22, 1988. Yes, she remembers the exact date.
Farley, who once took advance pancake orders for my toddler sons, spoke about what kept her going, raising three sons while running the restaurant, and why people have kept coming to the Brunchery.
What do you remember about when you first started?
It was scary as heck. If we did 50 people a day in Brandon, we were so happy. Now when I do 450 people a day, I'm happy.
You opened the Brunchery with your brother (Michael Russo) and then he passed away two years later. How difficult was it to keep going?
Difficult. First I didn't think I could do it by myself, but I did. My dream was to do it to have children and to do it until they graduated from high school. That was my thought process. It was a job I could do that my kids would not know I actually worked.
At 7:30 in the morning, I could drop them off at Children's Academy. I work until 2 and I pick them up from Children's Academy. "Where have you been all day, mom?" It was perfect. I will tell you that when the last one graduated from high school almost six years ago, my husband goes, 'Kev, they've graduated from high school.' But I wasn't ready.
Now you're retiring. What's the emotion been the last couple of days?
Sad. You know what the good part is, I can be in here on a Sunday morning and girls that I held as children are now coming in with their children. My employees that worked for me in 1988 come in with their family. Everybody still comes in. I find that amazing.
Has it grown? Yes, but I would say 35 percent of my core business — I may not be waiting on their parents anymore but I'm waiting on them. Have I seen a lot of sadness? Some days I sat here and I wept when they told me this person or that person passed away. But I know that's how it goes.
Your three sons are adults now, but Jake, Ryan and Mike all worked here as teens. What did it mean to bring them in and see them help you?
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I don't think there's ever been such a thrill when you see your own children. By the time Jake was a sophomore in high school, he could wait on more than half the dining room. Some of the customers still remember. Personable. Friendly. How proud could a parent be?
Ryan, my middle child who's now a biomedical engineer, worked about two months and he goes, "I hate this job. I hate everything about it."
Does he get an A for honesty?
I went home to my husband and I say,"'I chose this job, he didn't. Let him go somewhere else. He's making me as miserable as he's miserable."
The baby came in and he worked in the kitchen, he worked on the floor. He did everything. He wanted to be the owner. "Let's franchise. Let's go crazy." That was his personality.
You've always hired young people, right?
I have always hired at least four first-time job students a year. That has always been my practice since I started. My feeling for that is they need a chance. They need to be trained how to work, how to work hard — a work ethic. Every single time I sit down with them and interview them I share with them my family experience.
I say, "Before you commit to this job, you're going to come in one day and I'm going to let you have a trial, and I'm going to tell you why. You need to pick a job that you like. If you have to be in this restaurant, you have to feel it. If you don't feel it, you're not going to hurt my feelings. You can come in and have breakfast, we'll still be friends. But if you feel it. I can train you. I can teach you absolutely anything."
Now you're retiring. What are you going to do?
I made a promise to Billy I would do nothing for 12 months (laughs).
Why do I get the feeling you're going to have trouble keeping that promise?
One of my kids thinks maybe I'll make three months. I think another kid thinks maybe I'll make three days. Everybody is joking about it at my house.
I don't know. Maybe you'll like it.
I think I'm going to love it. You asked me how I felt and you do get emotional, but not over the business, it's about the people. I consider myself very, very lucky to have that in a community where they've supported — and I'm not easy to like.
That's not true.
Look at that sign, "Sorry if I look interested. I'm not." I had two gentlemen here today and they said, "Oh my God, I'm gonna miss you." I said, "What are you going to miss, that I say hurry up and order because I'm busy"? They said, "Yeah, we love that." I had another customer say, "What's it going to be like without the pancake Nazi telling me what I can eat and what I can't eat?" I said, "You're really hurting my feelings calling me that." (laughs).
You know, we haven't even talked about the food. Is that what got you into the restaurant business?
I love to cook. That's what I love. I go home and cook for my husband. When my family was in New York andthe kids were in college, I flew up to New York, I spent one whole day cooking and packaging everything and dropping it off at their apartments, labeled —and for my husband, all labeled. It's what I love.
Tell me about your drive to be consistent with what you cook.
I always say, "They don't come here for my budding, smiling personality." They come here because they are in love. You're in love with that breakfast croissant that you always get. We don't go places for the owner. We go places for the consistency and the service you get.
And you tried to make it perfect every day.
I'm training someone (to make the quiche) and I looked at her and I go, "Love that. Look at it, love it. Put that together, love what you're doing and it'll taste fabulous."
The Weekly Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Follow Ernest Hooper at @hoop4you.