OLYMPIA - To understand why dozens of people came out to the McMenamins Spar Cafe on Monday for a fundraising breakfast for longtime waitress Genia Sutter, just ask Larry Eikstaedt.
About 14 years ago, he began taking his grandson Roger Schuettke then 2, to the restaurant at 114 Fourth Ave. E. Sutter, who now has been a waitress at the Spar for about 34 years, took a shine to the little boy and asked that Roger come to the Spar on his birthday.
He did, and when they walked in the door, Sutter was banging on a pan with a big metal spoon, calling everybody to sing “Happy Birthday.” There were helium balloons and presents.
“Just about as soon as we sat down, a big chocolate milkshake came for Roger,” Eikstaedt said.
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It became a yearly tradition. For about seven more years, Sutter threw a birthday party for Roger.
It’s the same outpouring of love that brought grandfather and grandson, now 16, to the restaurant Monday for a fundraiser for Sutter, who is recovering from a stroke she suffered July 31. She was on duty at the restaurant at the time, and was reluctant to leave. She said she has never called in sick and never asked for time off.
The fundraiser was expected to bring in about $2,000 for Sutter’s medical bills, said Jon-Paul Sletten, manager of the Spar. He said people began lining up outside about 6:15 a.m., waiting for the restaurant to open at 7.
Sletten said he thinks Genia has been there for 34 years, certainly longer than any other employee. He started going to the Spar in 1988 or 1989, moved to Seattle about 10 years ago and came back to manage the Spar. Genia was still there. “It was wonderful,” he said. “It was absolutely wonderful.”
The restaurant’s newest employee, Joel Hart, said she welcomed him with open arms. “She’s just a sweetheart,” he said.
A lot of patrons go way back with Genia. Denis Curry has been coming since 1970. He mentions a painting with several old-time waitstaffers, of which only Genia is still working.
“When I heard that she was sick, I thought, well, I ought to come down and make a donation,” he said.
When he thinks of Sutter, he remembers “tremendous good humor. Always called you ‘hon.’ No nonsense, but always a big smile.”
Sally Anaker speaks of Sutter with admiration. “She’d always see us and she’d come running over with her pot of coffee,” she said.
Lowell Johnson said he became familiar with Sutter when his men’s group from the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, about 15 men, met weekly for breakfast.
“She was delightful,” he said. “She took care of us well.”
He describes her as unpretentious, someone who remembered her customers and treated them like family. “She cared about the people that she served,” he said.
The Spar opened in 1935, and was operated by the McWain family from 1940 to 2006. Then the Portland-based McMenamin family bought the restaurant and reopened it in 2007.
“I’m glad they saved this place,” Johnson said. “It’s one of those Olympia icons.”
Patrons say the same about Genia Sutter.