The sun creeps into the Reene’s Soup & Sandwich shop as the early morning coffee group solve the world’s problems and the baker whose name has adorned the sign outside for 28 years snickers from beyond the counter in the kitchen at the men gossiping at their table.
On May 25 Renee Salonen closed the doors of her cozy restaurant with its baby blue exterior on First Avenue and hung up her apron. Retirement will no doubt be as sweet as one of the 66 year old’s famed desserts.
“Everybody has been saying ‘we’re so happy for you, but we’re not happy for you. Where are we going to eat?’ They think they should come to my house,” said Salonen late last month, a few days before closing.
Renee’s has been a gathering spot in downtown Ladysmith since she took it over in 1990 along with the attached building that’s operated as an art supply store.
Dark blue tables lined both sides of the room with matching diner chairs. Simple pieces of art adorned the walls giving it more of a feeling like home than going out to eat.
“There wasn’t that many restaurants in Ladysmith like there is now and it was just a little niche,” she said, recalling when she made the decision to purchase the building.
“I worked at other restaurants around the area but I just wanted a place of my own so I could do what I wanted.”
And so she did, serving breakfast and lunch with an emphasis on fresh ingredients. Patrons have continued to come back, always hungry for more of her homemade bread, cheesecake and lemon meringue. Howie Davis is said to have bid upwards of $300 for one of Renee’s raisin pies at a local fundraiser.
Salonen grew up in and around the kitchen. She was raised in Regina, Sask, and her family moved here when she was 13 years old. They owned the Mt. Brenton Snack Bar in Saltair where she worked alongside her parents.
“Most of my recipes are my mom’s…she was a really good cook,” she said. “I think you have to use the old recipes, rather than the new ones that call for a package of this and a package of that…good Prairie recipes.”
For a while prior to opening her own restaurant Salonen also ran the kitchen at the Horseshoe in Chemainus.
The loyalty of customers at Renee’s was always second to none. There was a 5 a.m. group, 8 a.m. group and guys that come every Wednesday for bacon and eggs.
“We’ve always been pretty steady and we’ve always had lots of regular customers. If you’re nice to people they’re nice back,” she said. “I’ve seen lots of kids grow up and bring their kids in. It’s been really nice.”
Duck Paterson was one of those in the early morning group who has been going to Renee’s for about two decades, starting with Saturdays and then every day.
“I’m not sure it was her intention to open at five. She was there baking and so we just started strolling in,” he said, adding how the group changed over the years but it was always a place where they could talk politics and raise their voices.
“If you were there at five o’clock you were going to be a victim of this banter…and she didn’t really do anything other than laugh at us.”
Salonen in turn has also enjoyed the company that early in the morning.
“The five o’clock guys are well trained,” Renee said with a smile. “They make their own coffee. It’s only me here baking so they’re very protective and very good.”
A few hours later the usual breakfast crews would converge at their reserved tables.
John Lees had been going to Reene’s for about a decade with six others who dubbed themselves ‘The Breakfast Club.’
The homemade bread was a highlight of every meal.
“The regulars used to go every morning and it was almost like coming down to breakfast with your family. You’d talk and poke fun from your table to the next table. You knew everybody,” he said. “She deserves her retirement and I wish her the best of luck.”
Kenny Davis even had his own chair, but don’t ever get caught sitting in it or he’d ask you to move. Larry Adair also had his favourite seat but he’s not known to make a fuss.
“It’s different in here, everybody talks to everybody,” she said. “Everybody knows what everybody is doing. It’s really nice. Some Saturday’s the whole restaurant is in a conversation.”She also credits her staff for sticking with her all these years.
“I’ve been very fortunate with staff. They stay a long time,” she said.
In retirement, she’ll make more time for painting and teaching in the new studio being built by her husband.
“We’ll probably spend more time at our cottage at Horne Lake,” she added.
A recipe book is also potentially in her future, but there’s a secret ingredient that she’ll always be missing.
“I like people and I really like my customers. I’m going to really miss them and I’m not quite sure how I’m going to manage without them,” she said. “It’s been a great 28 years. A great place to work – but it’s time.”