Free time isn't all it's cracked up to be. Lillian Saunders learned that lesson the hard way this winter, after a fire destroyed The Badger Diner, the restaurant she owned with her husband, Frank, for 35 years.
"What do you do with your time when you got nowhere to go?" asks Lillian. "I tell you, it's not nice."
So the recent reopening of the beloved eatery - an institution in Central Newfoundland, both for locals and drivers traversing the island - didn’t just mark a return to work, it meant a welcome return to life as usual for the Saunders family.
It all started on January 14, as Lillian was closing up shop for the night and heard a strange noise. When she went to investigate, she was horrified to discover the restaurant’s stock room ablaze, sparked by an electrical fire that originated inside the building’s walls. With the flames spreading fast, she grabbed two family heirlooms and fled her longtime place of business. Despite the best efforts of fire fighters, within a couple of hours the restaurant - hailed as serving the province’s best meal of fish and chips in a contest held by Downhome magazine in 2014 - was reduced to rubble and ashes.
“The only thing left standing was the chair that I sat on for the last I don’t know how many years,” says Lillian. “Everything was flattened right around it…I should have took a picture.”
A few weeks later, Lillian turned 61 - an age when most folks are considering retirement. But instead of calling it quits, she and Frank decided to start over. Already, Lillian was missing her busy days, her staff and her customers.
Back in Business
While she says it wasn’t feasible to rebuild from the ground up there was, in her opinion, an even better option, and it was just 20 minutes down the road in Grand Falls-Windsor. Lillian’s own parents constructed the building back in 1981, from which they ran a restaurant called Loung’s Garden (Loung being Lillian’s maiden name).
“They came here and they built it and they had an awesome business going,” says Lillian - until the divided highway went through and disrupted traffic flow to the business. Defeated, the Loung’s begrudgingly shuttered their eatery.
“Mom and Dad always said they wanted to see the place work again,” says Lillian. Although she and Frank eventually purchased the vacant building from her parents and ran it as a bar (called Frank’s Place), she sees its recent transformation back into a restaurant as the true fulfilment of their dream.
However, making that dream come true meant a lot hard work - most of which was carried out by Frank and the couple’s sons. In the months since the fire, the building’s interior has undergone extensive renovations. “We wanted this nice family atmosphere,” says Lillian. “We wanted somewhere you can bring your family for special occasions.”
It’s a bigger space than the former venue, and it’s got a bigger name to match: The Badger Diner Bar & Grill. “The town says that they feel I should keep the ‘Badger Diner’ because it’s kind of my signature mark in the restaurant business,” says Lillian.
Over time, she’s considering adding some additional menu items, including Jiggs’ dinner on Sundays - but one thing customers can rest assured will be staying exactly the same is her prized fish and chips recipe.
“I’m not going to part with that for nothing,” says Lillian proudly. She admits being named the purveyor of the “very best fish and chips in Newfoundland and Labrador” four years ago was a boon for her small business. Her award was lost in the fire, but a replacement now sits on a shelf in her new establishment, alongside the two family heirlooms she managed to escape with.
Several of her original staff members have reprised their roles in the restaurant, for which Lillian is extremely grateful. She’s also grateful for the tremendous support she’s received from her customers. “I can’t believe the messages that I got. People messaged me all the time: ‘When are you going to open? Can’t wait to see you. I miss you,’ and all this,” says Lillian. A contest for restaurant gift certificates held on The Badger Diner Bar & Grill’s Facebook page shortly before opening drew more than 1,000 entrants, and hundreds tuned in to watch the live draw.
Back at work since mid-May, she imagines her mother and father, who both passed away six years ago, would be pleased and honoured to see their old restaurant back in business. And it looks like it might just remain in business for at least a few more years yet.
“I’ve been peeling potatoes since I was five, been working in a restaurant since I was 14, and I’m 61 now. I might be there till I’m 70,” says Lillian. “I’m going to give it my all.” - By Ashley Miller