Auburn’s Starting Gate restaurant on Auburn Way North is a lot like the thousands of other small diners across the nation.
One walks in, catches the familiar chinking of metal on plates, the ring of cup on cup, the scent of coffee, the hissing grill and the whirring fan. And drifting up, the chatter of men going on about fishing, women chatting about their kids, a baby or two winding up for a squall.
But the Starting Gate does have something that sets it apart.
Look behind the counter. There, see that woman in the dark jeans and white T, gold pendant hanging from her neck, straight brown hair in a tail?
As the old timers shuffle in, Lorie Mortensen greets them by their first names, knows what each wants before they’ve said a word, asks about the newborn, what the doctors say, never forgets a face, is ever ready with a snappy comeback for the wisenheimer.
“Tell your daughter we’ll miss her,” she calls out to a familiar face as it turns to the door.
In a flash, she’s halfway across the floor, coffee pot or plates in hand, smiling, carrying with her, customers say, a reassuring sense of calm and order even in movement.
“A whirling dervish, she’s here, she’s there,” customer Shirley Roberts said of her.
The fact that Mortensen has done the same thing at this eatery for 41 years means she’a known most of her customers when they were babies without a hair on their heads, and many when they had their own hair and teeth. But she’s not telling.
“The grandkids of the kids who used to come in here are raising their kids now,” Mortensen said.
When customers explain why they have been coming to this place for decades, one word pops up again and again, and it always seems to find its way back to Mortensen.
“It’s like a family here,” says Colleen Shilling, 74, retired Boeing, nursing her cup of coffee, eyes turned to Mortensen.
“She is amazing,” said Stanley Moses, in for his regular with wife Mary Ann and a granddaughter. “I was here when she started, this young girl with long brown hair.”
“Got a mind like a steel trap, knows what everybody wants,” said Shirley Roberts.
Great as she is at it, waitressing wasn’t what the former Lorie Maguire had planned for her life when she graduated from Auburn High School in 1975.
“I never drank, never got high, never partied. I was always more keen about making money,” Mortensen said.
Her ambition: police officer. She graduated from Green River Community College in 1978, and applied to the Auburn and Kent police departments, among others.
“First thing they told me was I needed to have a driver’s license, and I needed to be 21, and I needed to have three years of school, and I needed to have five years of working with the public. By the time I had all that, they told me I was overqualified,” she said.
In those days, she said, Auburn tried out its fledgling cops at Troy Field, today’s Auburn Memorial Stadium.
“The cops were watching me,” Mortensen said of her trial. “I weighed 155 pounds, and when they put the weapon belt on me, I went like this” she said, with a perfect starboard sag.
And when she tried to scale the wall, she got hung up there, and she had to ask the cops to interrupt their roars of laughter to “get me down! I couldn’t get over the wall, literally,” Mortensen said.
Great at her job
At this point in the tale, Roberts stepped in with a comforting word.
“You’re a wonderful waitress. You’re a force of your own. You don’t need all those cops hanging around anyway,” Roberts said.
“Oh, please, I used to hang out with them,” Mortensen said with a laugh.
So, in 1978, she went to work as a hostess at what was then Mr. Ed’s, the former Angies, the former Harold’s, The Grotto. She became a waitress, dug in and there she has been rooted ever since as constant as the Gate’s menu.
“It was work,” she said of those early days. “You had to do your job. If you wanted to make good money, you had to be as nice to them as you wanted them to be to you. That’s just how it was.”
In her years there, she has fended off only one grabby customer.
“I just leaned over and said, ‘Don’t ever touch me again. I have people that can hurt you,’ ” she told the man, with impressive sincerity.
The best part of her job, she said, has always been the people, even when they’re crabby.
“Sometimes they don’t want to hear your problems, they want you to listen to them. I just figure, maybe they’re having a bad day.”
Her philosophy of waitressing?
“Treat people like you want to be treated, that’s the best advice I can give anybody,” Mortensen said.