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Billings Park landmark returns

Jed Carlson/ Doug Brunner, standing, chats with customers at the Billings Park Cafe Thursday while topping off coffee. They are, left to right, Roy "Pep" Martinson of Oliver and George and Kim Gralewski of Billings Park. The cafe at 1802 Iowa Ave. opened under new owners Thursday and saw a steady stream of customers.

After months of waiting, watching and Facebook following, the doors to Billings Park Cafe opened Thursday morning to a steady stream of customers.

A family of five was waiting outside 1802 Iowa Ave. when co-owner Cheryl Miller and her son, Doug Brunner, opened at 6 a.m. Three hours later, residents were reacquainting themselves with the neighborhood touchstone.

"We're back at our usual table," said Kim Gralewski, who lives four blocks from the cafe with her husband George. "This is our favorite place."

Their spot has a good view of both doors, and it's close to the coffee pot.

"We want to see everybody," Gralewski said.

Bonnie Pauna, her daughter-in-law Michelle and grandson Mason, 4, slipped into a booth nearby.

"We've been coming here forever," Pauna said.

"Since I was probably his age," said Michelle Pauna, looking at her son.

They recalled how the cafe, which started life as Nelson's Hardware Store, has changed over the years. Bonnie Pauna remembered when a soda fountain counter ran along one wall. Michelle Pauna said former owner Isadore "Izzy" Turner would add extra hash browns to her plate when she was young.

Rolling with the changes, the establishment has remained an integral part of the neighborhood.

"You see everybody. You can just come in and plop, enjoy the people," Bonnie Pauna said.

It's a place to connect and relax, no makeup required.

"You see all your neighbors. We know everybody," Michelle Pauna said. "It is the 'Cheers' of Billings Park."

The newest incarnation of the Billings Park Cafe features a streamlined menu with a focus on breakfast as well as lunch items and homemade pie.

"They can get whatever they want any time of the day," Miller said.

She stressed that Thursday was the cafe's opening, not a re-opening.

"Our focus is just breakfast, instead of all the specialty sandwiches they had before," Brunner said.

The fish fry and prime rib dinner, popular at the cafe before it closed a year ago, are not on the menu. They could be added in the future, Brunner said, if there's a demand.

Miller brings 25 years of restaurant experience and a finance degree to the business.

"I started at Lonnie's Village Restaurant in Lake Nebagamon," said Miller, who lives in Wascott.

This is the first time she's worked for herself. Although it's been a challenge, she decided to jump in head first with co-owner and fiance Tom Germann when the opportunity came up.

"The people of the community are fantastic," Miller said. "They are the most welcoming, friendly people ... This is a great little community to have a small restaurant."

It's a good fit for the family-owned business, which currently employs three. In addition to the mother and son duo of Miller and Brunner, Miller's mom, Pat, is the primary pie baker. She'll also be helping at the cafe on weekends.

Siblings Amanda and Matthew LeBard tucked into breakfast Thursday morning at the cafe.

"I've been waiting; I've been really excited," said Matthew LeBard, a third-generation resident of Billings Park.

"Yeah, he called me this morning," Amanda LeBard said. "You called me twice about it."

Her brother's enthusiasm and a memory of "the biggest pancakes I've ever seen" brought Amanda LeBard, now living in Superior's North End, to the cafe.

Even Miller has childhood memories of the cafe she now owns.

"My dad grew up over on Butler Avenue so we used to come to the restaurant back in the day when I was this big, I used to come here," she said, hand hovering at her waist.

Gralewski gave kudos to Miller and Brunner for bringing the Billings Park Cafe back.

"These are the nicest people in the world and everybody wants to support them," she said. "We came here all the time before, all the time. This place was so busy before. It's going to be that way again."

"Billings Park needs this," Gralewski said.

Billings Park Cafe is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday at 1802 Iowa Ave. Additional information and the menu can be found on the Billings Park Cafe Facebook page.