It was a particularly nasty evening with thick clouds darkening the skies an hour earlier than usual.
The small diner – at the far end of a large gravel parking lot behind abandoned gas pumps – looked forlorn, save for the warm glow from the windows.
Stepping into the warmth of Robbyn’s Highway Grill & Take-Out, the first reaction is, “Whoa!”
The butter-yellow walls and low ceilings are decorated with lobster traps and Chinese lanterns, potted plants and Christmas lights, fish nets and red-checkered curtains.
A young family had nestled around a corner table for a night free of cooking while a middle table filled with old friends.
Robbyn and Darren Bakken knew it would be a slow table business on a night of foul weather, and they knew the take-out orders would be brisk.
They know their customers.
When challenged to name 10 customers in 10 seconds, they manage to shoot back with 12: “Bob, Ted, Don, Jason, Doug, Mike, Steve, Ray, John, Luke, Phil and Matt.”
Robbyn adds, proudly, “And those are just guys … we didn’t name any girls.”
And they know their building doesn’t look as welcoming on the outside as it does on the inside.
“We have a professional-looking sign coming,” says Darren. “But you’ll see 25 or 30 cars here and you’ll wonder what’s going on. But you step inside the doors and you will say, ‘Well, of course.’
“There’s a lot of work to do on the exterior, but we’ve been very busy.”
“It’s the word of mouth,” says Robbyn. “It’s all word of mouth.”
Good neighbours, too. The Bakkens say, “the Yamaha guys” are great, and those from Kilrich, McCrae, Mount Sima and the rock-crushing plant are all good customers who appreciate not having to drive downtown for lunch.
Located on the Alaska Highway, just a bit south of Robert Service Way, they get a lot of phone calls from those arranging for take-out on their way home, further south of town.
“People come from Porter Creek, too,” says Darren. “They come all the way through town to get here.”
“People from Dawson City say they have to come here when they visit,” adds Robbyn.
Some customers come twice a day. Some come three times a day.
“The halibut and chips,” they say in unison.
“It’s the batter,” says Darren.
“It’s a thin batter,” adds Robbyn.
“It’s a big piece of fish.”
“It’s all fish.”
“It’s the opposite of what you normally get,” says Robbyn. “It is not just a little fish and tons of dough.”
“It’s untouchable,” says Darren, offering to cook some up for me right there and then. They finally agree to send me home with one … for research purposes.
“The halibut is only $14 and it’s a lot of fish,” he says.
“Nobody leaves here hungry; we serve big portions.”
The quality of the food, however, is more of a business philosophy. For example, the burgers “are all Triple A ground beef, homemade all the time, none of it store-bought, none of it processed,” says Darren.
“Our coleslaw and tartar sauce are made from scratch,” says Robbyn, who does all the baking for the restaurant (except for the loaves of bread, which are baked fresh each day at another bakery).
Then there are the “healthy wraps and very lean sandwiches” and the veggie burgers that they make.
“And homemade soups every day,” adds Robbyn.
We interrupt our chat to watch their six-year-old son Kreed walk over to the family of four in the corner. He then leaves with the two young children and they disappear into a back room.
The Bakkens explain he has a little room back there with a 32-inch television, crafts and games. This “boy cave” is where he takes his new friends, or to go off to be alone while his parents are working.
“He doesn’t even know them,” says his mom. “But he does now.
“And look at the parents, they are thinking, ‘Now, we get a chance to talk.’
“We get lot of families where that happens. Their kids can be kids here.”
When Darren was four years old, his father tried running a restaurant and he remembers just wanting to be with them, hanging out in the back room.
With Kreed feeling at home here, the Bakkens can enjoy being a family.
“He wants to help all of the time,” says Darren.
“He’ll take people their drinks,” adds Robbyn.
This diner is a lifestyle for the Bakkens. They want to keep it looking like a Mom and Pop operation because, really, they are a mom and a pop.
“I’m very nurturing,” Robbyn admits. “I love to take care of people.” She is the kind of person who makes cookies for gifts while Darren often hands out treats to customers.
“The winters that we have lived here, without this business, were depressing,” says Robbyn. “In the last two years, when we’ve been in business for ourselves, winters have been more exciting and it keeps us sane and happy and it’s good.
“We enjoy it.
“It isn’t hard work for us – we found a way to do it without it being stressful. It’s so fun.”
“Yeah, it is,” says Darren. “We like being our own boss; we get to create.”
“It’s so exciting as every day is different, yet with so many familiar faces,” adds Robbyn.
As I am about to leave, into the blast of early snow once again, I am handed my “single” piece of halibut to research on. But I find that it is joined by a second piece, and homemade fries, homemade tartar sauce and an order of addictive deep fried pickles, from a recipe that Robbyn’s mother found.
Darren was right – nobody leaves hungry.
Take-out orders can be placed at 334-5259.
Darrell Hookey is a
Whitehorse-based freelance writer.