SAINT JOHN – Kelly Brake was 11 years old when she first worked in a restaurant.
Her father, Mel Gallant, was in the military and they had just moved to Kingston, Ontario. While they waited to move into a new house, they lived in a motel with a small restaurant that served breakfast and Brake volunteered to help out.
“I got to help out every single morning and I just loved it,” she says. “It gives you something to look forward to. It teaches you a lot of responsibility early. I didn’t get paid to do it, except for tips. I loved the money [even though she was just paid tips] because when you’re 11 that’s great money.”
Twenty years later she’s still in the business, opening her first restaurant last summer – the Newfoundland-style DownHome Diner Fish & Chips on Bayside Drive in East Saint John.
“It’s a way of living. Once you get into it, it’s hard to leave it,” says Brake of the restaurant business. “I love being around people all the time. You always have lots of new people coming in, so it’s very easy to have conversations with people, and they’re coming from all kinds of different places too.”
Her father’s move to Kingston helped launch her restaurant career at age 11, and his family background inspired the type of restaurant she chose to open two decades later. He was born and raised in Newfoundland and maintained certain traditions even though he didn’t return there to raise his own family.
“These are all popular things I would have grown up eating all the time. It was the same with my husband [Shannon], who was always fishing when he was young in Newfoundland.”
DownHome Diner has everything you would expect at a typical Atlantic Canadian diner – seafood and burger platters, club sandwiches and hearty eggs-and-bacon style breakfasts.
But the menu also contains meals commonly served in Newfoundland:
Baymen Burger: “fried bologna with cheese in between, topped with egg on a bun,” says Brake.
Toutons: “deep fried bread dough. A lot of people [cook] it different ways. We normally do it in scruncheons [pork fat].”
Sailors Feed: “A bit of everything,” says Brake. “Fish cakes, toutons, bologna are standard things we always serve. [Plus] bacon, eggs, hashbrowns and toast.”
Brake says this would be a typical breakfast for someone about to spend a long day on a fishing boat.
“It’s a feed, a giant breakfast. It gives you a taste of everything…even though it’s not [necessarily] good for us,” she says with a smile. “It fills the belly. You’re going to get a big feed before you hit the boat.”
DownHome Diner is located in a building that once housed a bank branch on Bayside Drive, the road that connects the east side industrial area with the One Mile interchange that brings people on and off the highway. Brake knew it was a busy thoroughfare, but she was still surprised by how busy it was when the diner first opened last June.
“When we opened our doors, we had 150 people our first day,” she says. “It was like that for months. We never expected it…everyone was just ready for us to be open. As soon as the door opened we couldn’t catch up. There was just so much business and so many people wanting to try it out. It was like, oh my goodness, it was hard to breathe.”
Many of her customers work at nearby places like the Irving Oil refinery, Canaport LNG and Irving Paper. They also come from around the Saint John area, she says, often dropping by for something to eat on an east-side shopping run.
She also attracts ex-pat Newfoundlanders from all over the province. She says there are more of those than most people think.
“We know a lot of people from Newfoundland. They’re everywhere,” she says. “We have people travelling from as far as Gagetown and Miramichi who are from Newfoundland who can’t wait to come. I have a couple of regular customers who, anytime they’re here for a doctors appointment or anything like that, they’re in here.”
The Newfoundland dishes are popular with customers – both people from the island and mainlanders who want to try them – but fish & chips is still the best-selling one. She knows that’s standard fare in most East Coast diners so she’s developed her own special recipe – one that tastes great but is not “dripping in grease.”
“We had so many people [ordering it] I had to [make it] very fast. When we first opened I was running around making the batters very quickly. I could do it without measuring. I’d pretty much scoop it in and off we went. I never anticipated we’d be going through 15 or 20 batters and going through that much fish in a day.”
The restaurant, which seats 30-35 people at a time, is a draw for people from around the region. So occasionally customers from other communities will ask if she plans to open a DownHome diner closer to where they live.
“I get asked, ‘When are you going to put one here?’ Everything we do here is homemade. A lot of it is me making it all. If I could duplicate myself that would be awesome and I could put one everywhere.”