Moxee cafe back in business

MOXEE -- Just hours after a wildfire destroyed the Silver Dollar Cafe last August, owners Rick and Martha Lounsbury had little doubt about what to do next.

"Rick said, 'We'll rebuild it,' " Martha Lounsbury said.

Nearly a year after making that decision, the Lounsburys, both 49, are looking to reopen the restaurant by Sunday.

The reopening of the restaurant, which is at the corner of highways 24 and 241, more than 30 miles east of Yakima, has been anticipated for several months by the handful of neighbors in the area and those driving by.

"I'm anxious for it to reopen," said Cindy Attar, who lives two miles from the restaurant. "It's looking really, really good."

Longtime residents of the area say the Silver Dollar Cafe could have been in operation as far back as the 1940s and was housed in a former packing shed from the 1960s until last year.

Over time, the humble restaurant became a rural landmark and a valuable rest stop for nearby farmers and Hanford workers.

Dick Prigmore, who owned the restaurant for more than 15 years before he died in August 2008, had a sign referring to his restaurant as "The Middle of Nowhere."

Indeed, by the time drivers get to the Silver Dollar Cafe, they have driven through miles and miles of open valleys covered in sagebrush. The nearest town to the restaurant -- Sunnyside -- is nearly 20 miles away via a winding route through the Rattlesnake Hills.

But that's the way residents like it. The handful of people who live near the restaurant moved there to get away from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

The area surrounding the restaurant also got attention as it ended up in the center of several political debates.

The area was the site of the Black Rock Reservoir, a proposed 1.6 million acre-foot manmade lake that supporters claim would provide a much-needed water supply for nearby farmers and generate tourism activity.

Prigmore, who owned the restaurant at the time the reservoir was first proposed in the early 2000s, was a staunch opponent of the project, which would have displaced the restaurant.

More recently, the restaurant was destroyed in the 49,000-acre Dry Creek Complex wildfire on Aug. 21, 2009, the largest of several dozen fires caused by lightning strikes.

The fire generated awareness of the risk of living in what's called a "no man's land," an area that is without fire protection because it's just outside several fire-coverage areas, including Yakima Fire District 5 and the East Valley Fire Department.

Politics aside, running the Silver Dollar Cafe still fulfilled a longtime dream for Martha Lounsbury, who spent most of her working career running a travel agency in Yakima.

The couple took over ownership of the restaurant several months after Prigmore died.

Though the couple operated the cafe for just eight months before it burned down, they grew attached to the neighbors and the others who frequented the restaurant.

"It kind of becomes this community within itself," Martha Lounsbury said. "(Diners) seem to let down their guard and enjoy visiting."

She said that alone was worth the money and labor it would take to rebuild.

Although the area never was zoned for commercial use, the county allowed the Lounsburys to rebuild the restaurant as long as it was built in the same spot as the previous one.

While the restaurant is the same size -- 3,150 square feet -- it doesn't look anything like the old restaurant.

Most of the restaurant's exterior is red metal siding. The exception is the front of the restaurant, which was constructed with cedar. A wooden porch made in a wagon wheel design completes the restaurant's new look.

The restaurant's sign, the only thing not lost in the fire, remains outside.

Inside, one wall of the building is lined with coolers, part of the restaurant's minimart area.

In the dining area, patrons can sit in large gray wooden booths or at the bar. The restaurant's floor was filled with concrete, a surface that can easily can cleaned.

While the Lounsburys wanted to give the restaurant a new look, they were careful to not decorate it in a way that would alienate regulars.

"We don't want anyone feeling pretentious about the restaurant," Martha said.

They did allow their daughter, Kelsey, 21, to paint one of the walls the crimson of Washington State University, her school. She has plans to hang WSU athletic posters on the wall.

It's a visual symbol of how much the Lounsburys value their family and neighbors.

To save costs, the Lounsburys decided to build the restaurant themselves.

A Yakima County building permit issued to the Lounsburys in December lists the value of constructing the restaurant at just under $298,000.

The Lounsburys wouldn't reveal the actual cost of rebuilding the restaurant but said that they saved about $100,000 building the restaurant themselves.

But they didn't have to go through the process alone. Every weekend, family members and neighbors drove up to the site to help in the construction process.

"If it wasn't for the family helping out every weekend, (the restaurant) wouldn't be rebuilt," Rick said.

For the restaurant's several dozen regulars, it's about restoring a community gathering place.

"The people who live out where we live are in one sense loners. We don't want to live right next to neighbors. That's why we don't live in town," Attar said. "But in human nature, we have social needs. With the Silver Dollar, the locals have a place to gather and chat."

And though the Lounsburys haven't owned the restaurant for long, Attar said they've already become a valuable asset to the area.

"Those two have a personality that is welcoming," she said. "They are appreciative and positive. They just have that type of personality. They draw people to them."

The Lounsburys are eager to reopen and put the long construction process behind them.

"I tell my husband that when we open, it will be actually be a vacation," Martha joked.