Todd Gregory preps a chicken sandwich order as one of the new owners of the landmark Willowcreek Store and Café. He says the cafe provides a community hub. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

WILLOWCREEK – Outside, gray overcast skies promised and soon delivered rain, but inside the Willowcreek Store and Café Wednesday afternoon a modest crowd rested at polished tables over cheeseburgers and salads.

Between the kitchen and the long, wood bar, new owner Todd Gregory peered across the tables, chatted with employee Vanessa Evers and prepared to get behind the big grill. 

“I have always wanted to operate a restaurant, and this is a known business around here,” said Gregory.

After the store and café closed briefly at the end of the summer, Gregory and his wife Susan inked a lease-option deal with the owners, Dick and Bev Vickery. The Gregorys re-opened the café early last month.

For Gregory, who will retire from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in January, the Willowcreek Store and Café isn’t just windows and walls and tables and chairs. 

“This is the hub of the community,” said Gregory.

Gregory said the store and café is a gathering place, a landmark of sorts and an oasis of drinks and eats. 

“It’s a small-town mentality. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone is welcome. And if you just want some good, home cooking, the food is good,” said Gregory.

Last Wednesday afternoon Gregory talked about the café’s hamburgers and how he planned soon to “bring pizza back, different hamburgers some different sandwiches.”

So far, said Gregory, customers appreciate that  the doors of the store and café are open.

“We’ve had a lot of support from people who think we will do a good job,” said Gregory. Gregory said he and Susan understood when they bought the store and café that it was a huge commitment. Especially monetarily. Gregory said he bought the café and store for $300,000 and “that doesn’t include the equipment.”

“I have been putting money away for 30 years and it is taking every bit of it,” said Gregory.

The biggest challenge so far, said Gregory, is the time investment.

“I spend most of my waking minutes either at the BLM office or here,” said Gregory. Gregory stops by the store before he goes to his office and, after work, is at the store until it closes. The best thing, he said, about managing his new business are the customers.

“I like talking to people,” said Gregory.

He said he is optimistic about the future of the café.

“I think it can make money,” said Gregory.

The cafe employs five people. Gregory said one of the chief goals in the next six months will be to build up the grocery side of the business.

“It has always had groceries, but it was pretty understocked when we took over,” said Gregory.

Gregory said the grocery part of the store will be modest –  “milk, eggs, snacks, that kind of stuff.”

Gregory said he thinks he can pay the store off early next year.

Along with more groceries Gregory said he plans to add lottery and his liquor license application is pending.

“The liquor license will probably be in the next three weeks,” said Gregory.

Gregory – who grew up in John Day - said he and Susan have lived in Willowcreek for 20 years. 

Gregory said he isn’t just going to sit back and wait for customers to show up either.

“There are things you can do,” he said.

For example, Gregory said Tuesday nights are typically slow, but he plans to create specials on meals to lure people in to the café.

Waitress Vanessa Evers began work at the café in June and said she enjoys her job.

“The customers who come in are nice,” said Evers.Her work place is also convenient, said Evers.

“It is right across the street from where my kids go to school,” said Evers.

The store and café are open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday the hours are 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. As Wednesday rolled into mid-afternoon Gregory prepared a lunch meal for two latecomers. As he scrambled to get eggs and cheese and lettuce for a salad and hamburger patties he glanced up at the dining area and nodded once.

“I think this is good. I think there are some good people here,” said Gregory.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: pat@malheurenterprise.com or 541-473-3377.

Gregory, who will retire from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in January, says the mom-and-pop shop and eatery is more than just a café; it's the hub of the small community. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

Willowcreek Store and Cafe employee Vanessa Evers chats with owner Todd Gregory last week just after the lunchtime crowd departed. Evers and his wife, Susan, recently purchased the longtime local landmark. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)