Containers still brim over with Smucker’s jellies, and bottles of Heinz ketchup still wait upside down alongside bottles of Tabasco sauce and salt and pepper shakers.
Through the windows, buses and people can be seen, coming and going as usual. The Sun Break Cafe appears to be in the trim for another day.
But it’s 11:30 a.m. Monday, the breakfast hour, and the people who should be there filling the joint with cheering chatter and the clink of silverware on plates are gone, their absence shuttered over by a stark, emphatic silence.
After 40 years of operation in Auburn, the popular breakfast-and-lunch restaurant at 22 A Street SW closed for good on July 21.
According to owner Thomas Hollern, former son-in-law of co-founders Bruce and Jill Alverson, what brought the restaurant to its untimely end wasn’t the development of the Legacy Plaza building that today towers over the former restaurant from two sides, or the accompanying loss of public parking.
Instead, it was the one-two punch of COVID-19 and inflation. Sans those two horsemen of the Sun Break’s apocalypse, Hollern said, the restaurant would still “be open for sure.”
“Back when COVID started, we shut it down for a month-and-a-half, and when we opened back up, following King County’s guidelines, I applied for the first round of PPPs, and we received that,” said Hollern. “Once they opened up the second round of PPPs, I applied for that, and we received that. We received a bunch of grants, and help from customers, and that got us through what I thought was going to be the hardest, most difficult part.”
And then run-away inflation landed its sucker punch.
“That really hit us hard this year,” Hollern said. “We were losing $5,000 to $10,00o a month on average from 2020. Some months it was more. I think we had about five months there we were a little over break even. This year, though, once I took it over fully, in our last two months, we were only off by a few hundred dollars. So we were in the right trend.”
But that, he added quickly, was without any machines breaking down and everything going smoothly. In the last week of operations, the regularly-occuring breakdown of the steamers was joined by the breakdown of the cooler.
“It was just looking at that, and looking at us increasing our prices already, and it wasn’t where it needed to be. We were working backwards with every meal we served, unfortunately,” Hollern said.
From the first bleak days of COVID, Hollern added, when there were no customers at all, closure had always been a bleak possibility, put off periodically by moments of optimism.
“Finally, when we got it almost to break even — like this year we had a profitable month — it was like, ‘Hey, you know what, that’s great.’ But then the next month was like $5,000 to $10,000 short, and prices just continued to go up. And then we get to these last two months, when it seemed maybe stuff could turn around. But when you look at the restaurant, and it’s not even a quarter filled during our lunches, our weekends, things weren’t even close to where we needed to be. And so, just looking at how much everything was costing, I said, this has to be.”
Bruce and Jill Alverson opened their first restaurant, the Big Bite Sandwich Shop, in Federal Way in the 1970s before they moved their establishment to Auburn near the C Street off ramp in 1982 changed the name to the Sun Break Cafe. They opened up the site on A Street in the late 1990s.
Hollern began working at the eatery 12 years ago.
“I started to take on more of a manager role as Bruce started to be here less. I’d always here to open it, prep, help with what needed to be done and manage it,” Hollern said. “Originally, the idea was I going to take over for Bruce, so he could be with his wife during the last week of her life.”
Jill Alverson died on Jan. 14, 2011.
Three-and-a-half years ago, the Alversons’ daughter, Tess Heck, and Hollern bought the restaurant. At the beginning of 2022, Heck sold her half of the business to Hollern.
Hollern said staff took the closure news hard, but all of them have since found new positions.
“Our cook, Mikey, our other cook, Tony, Raoul from the back, they’ve been here for so long. Mikey’s been cooking since they were over there at the other location in Auburn. So, it was a sad day. Some of them had families with school-age kids, some had grandkids. That’s why I kept pushing all the way through, asking myself, ‘Does it make sense to keep going,’ all the way through COVID. But the community, the staff, all of them were worth trying to figure something else out every day.
“I haven’t met a single patron that couldn’t relate special memories to this location, or to the location over there. Staff and community have reached out and let me know their different stories. Our Facebook page is full of messages from people saying, ‘Hey, I remember going there, doing this, this and this, and I always come to you guys.’ It’s really sad.”
At noon, a potential buyer appears at the now chained door to check out an icemaker Hallern hopes to sell off.