24 Hours at the Depot Grill

Night falls Jan. 22.
Night falls Jan. 22. Times-News

Waitress Sarah Burrill’s graveyard shift wound down at 5 a.m. with a strange episode — just one brief passage in the around-the-clock drama that is the Depot Grill.

The longtime eatery in Twin Falls’ historic warehouse district draws motorcyclists and mothers, bar hoppers and business owners, and the Times-News watched the progression of characters from 5 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 22, to 5 the next morning.

In the opening scene, a young woman in a parka and layers of mismatched clothing walked out the front entrance to smoke a cigarette. At the counter, a Filer man — who comes in every morning before work — drank coffee and read the newspaper. He put down his paper and, standing, took one last sip. As he left, he noticed a man sleeping at a booth, his back to the wall and his legs stretched across the bench.

The woman in the parka, who called herself Tori Smith from Jerome, emerged from the darkness and took a seat opposite the sleeper. She watched him, also keeping an eye on the clock.

“He just came in from a long haul,” Smith said. She meets him whenever he comes into town — about once a week.

“He needed a power nap,” she said. When she spoke, the trucker opened one eye and grumbled incoherently.

“Now don’t you wake up on the wrong side of the table,” Smith told her sleepy friend. She started to fidget. Her teenage son soon would be waiting for her to take him to school.

“My cell is dead. Take it out and charge it in your truck,” she told the trucker, trying to bring him around. Suddenly he sat up and looked at the cellphone in his hand.

“Whose phone is this?” he said, startled.

“It’s mine,” Smith said. “Go put it on your charger.”

He leaped to his feet and exited. When he didn’t return, she left to check on him.

“I hope they come back in,” Burrill told dayshift waitress Kerry Todd, who joined her at the cash register and gave her a questioning look. “They haven’t paid yet.”

Soon, the truck driver returned and handed Burrill collateral.

“They don’t have any money on them, but he said he’d be back. He left this,” she said, holding up a DeWalt rechargeable drill.

“Oh,” Todd said, “he’ll be back for that.”

5:45 a.m.

By 6 in the morning, Burrill was ready to get home to her children.

“She’s a single mom, raising — how many babies?” Todd asked the 35-year-old from Twin Falls.

“Five, all on my own,” Burrill answered.

She has worked the Depot Grill’s graveyard shift off and on since 1997, taking time off to have kids. “I always come back.”

Most nights, she said, the business requires only one waitress, one cook and one dishwasher.

“Each shift has different regulars. The swing shift gets the families, and I get the bar crowd,” she said. “The regulars are what keeps this place going.”

Day-shift waitresses Samantha Lovejoy and April Jones appeared as Burrill cashed out her register.

“We had a couple in who were celebrating their 65th anniversary,” Jones said, pointing to a booth along the wall. “They had met right here at that booth, back when the place had jukeboxes.”

6:05 a.m.

“Good morning, Bill,” Lovejoy said, placing a cup of coffee in front of a spiffy dresser. “Montana Bill” Johnson, 86, sat alone in a booth along the west windows, watching the passing headlights.

Johnson wore a blue shirt with a Southwestern design of an eagle flying over pines. The slide of his bolo tie was adorned with jewelry featuring an Apache dancer in traditional dress. A wedding band of rose gold covered a third of his ring finger.

“I like to eat by myself,” he said.

Johnson spends most of his time alone; Rachel, his wife of 61 years, is in a care center. He visits her on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

“We made an agreement,” he said. “She doesn’t like me driving.”

Johnson ordered his usual: a small hotcake and one egg, scrambled.

“Me, I’m a loner,” he said. “I just don’t get along with people.”

Johnson left his Montana home early.

“My parents were not good to me,” he said. “I took a lot of beatings. That’s what put me on the road.”

He came to Twin Falls 50 years ago and has been drinking coffee at the Depot Grill ever since.

7:15 a.m.

Against the back wall near the side exit, Lyle Cummins sat with a cup of joe. He likes his coffee black and sweetened with honey, not sugar.

“Need another cup, Grandpa?” Lovejoy asked.

“Please, Sammie,” Cummins said, pushing his empty cup toward the waitress.

“My granddaughter used to wait tables here, so all waitresses call me Grandpa,” he explained.

The Cummins name goes way back to the early days of neighboring Cassia County.

His great-grandfather was the brother of Daniel Cummins, one of the Oakley sheepherders first thought to be gunned down by “Diamondfield Jack” Davis in 1896.

But the history books got it wrong, Cummins said. His great-great-uncle’s name is incorrectly listed as Daniel Cummings in most accounts of the infamous double murder in the South Hills.

The tale of Davis — falsely accused, convicted and eventually pardoned after years of imprisonment — has become one of the most infamous in southern Idaho.

“At first I believed Diamondfield Jack was innocent,” Cummins said. “I tried to go into the story with an open mind, but now I’m convinced he did it.”

8 a.m.

At the other end of the room — alone at the end of the counter — sat Jim Lowe, looking much like Grand Ole Opry star Little Jimmy Dickens. A tiny man under a big cowboy hat, Lowe, 75, moved his eyes without moving his head.

“I fell off a roof headfirst,” he said. “The fall didn’t hurt at all; the pain came when I stopped.”

Lowe had nine vertebrae fused in what he called a botched operation. “Today, I’d rather go to a veterinarian than a doctor.”

“Hooley!” Lowe hollered when he spotted Julio Trejo coming through the door.

“Hey, Cowboy!” Trejo hollered back, taking the next stool.

Lowe said he isn’t really a cowboy. He just likes the hat.

Soon, Juan Galindo joined them. Galindo remained quiet while Trejo did the talking.

Trejo was born in 1940, in Laredo, Texas. His parents were migrant workers from Monterrey, Mexico. Trejo first came to Idaho as a teenager working the fields. He settled here in 1960.

After a 32-year career with Rogers Brothers Seed Co., Trejo retired and is living “a regular life,” with his son, his son’s wife and his grandchildren.

“I come here for biscuits and gravy,” he said. “That’s my favorite in the morning.”

Meanwhile, Cowboy slipped out and Manuel Campos took his seat.

Waitress Todd announced the next to arrive: “Here comes Freddie!”

8:30 a.m.

With all the stools occupied, Freddie Hernandez took a seat at a booth near his friends.

“All these guys, we’ve known each other for 40 or 50 years,” Hernandez said, pointing to the men at the counter. “This is how we keep in touch with what’s going on.”

He ordered biscuits and gravy.

“I come here five days a week,” Hernandez said. “On Sunday I go to church. On Saturday I go to my daughter’s restaurant in Jerome — El Sombrero.”

Born in 1934 in San Antonio, Texas, he became a migrant worker at a young age, picking tomatoes in Indiana and cherries in Michigan.

“We came here in 1952, my dad, my mother and me,” Hernandez said. “I decided to stay here.”

Eventually he ran his own crew hoeing fields in Murtaugh, Hansen, Kimberly, Filer and Buhl.

“We didn’t get paid much, maybe 90 cents an hour,” he said, “but we made it through.”

He eventually learned a trade. In the mid-1960s, Hernandez found himself doing concrete work on the 325-foot-high Hansen Bridge across the Snake River Canyon. Ten years later, he worked on the 500-foot-high I.B. Perrine Memorial Bridge.

“They told us a couple of workers would be killed, but no one was,” he said. “It was a good job and paid good money. It was a union job.”

Hernandez raised six kids in a local labor camp.

“It was a lot of fun in those days,” he said. “There was a lot of work. The labor camp was always packed.”

10 a.m.

At another counter, a half-dozen men sat in their usual seats — some breakfasting, some just drinking coffee.

The Depot Grill “is our home away from home,” 75-year-old Roger Howarth said. “For $1.50, I get 40 cups of coffee.”

Howarth used to co-own Tom’s Marina in Burley with his brother, Tom. Their father, Tom Sr., started the business, and the boys took it over when he retired. Howarth has lived in Twin Falls for 10 years.

Next to Howarth sat Leonard Grant, 69, and around the corner of the counter sat Mike Spencer, just 66.

“I have shoes older than that,” Howarth said.

Grant’s parents in 1956 homesteaded a farm north of Rupert, which he ran until he moved to Twin Falls 20 years ago.

“Sugar beets put my kids through school,” he said.

11 a.m.

Brandie McLemore of Jerome drank coffee at the counter, and Jones stopped by to top it off with more hot liquid. Steam rose from the mug decorated with a train and the words “Depot Grill, Twin Falls Idaho.”

McLemore was there to pick up her W-2s. After 10 years of working as a waitress, she’s more used to serving coffee than drinking it, but she started a new job as a receptionist in September.

“It sucks because you are always used to moving around and now you are just sitting there,” she said.

McLemore misses being a waitress. “I liked it. It was more up-paced.”

McLemore declined more coffee and started to gather her things. She also had to pick up her pit bull, Luke, from the veterinarian. But first she stopped and hugged a customer sitting at the counter. He grabbed the side of her head and pressed it against his in their quick embrace.

“Don’t work too hard,” someone called as McLemore left.

12:30 p.m.

Arnold Gutknecht, 81, was finishing up the lunch special — Cajun catfish — at the counter. In 30 minutes, he would be walking it off.

“I’m going to take the dog for a walk, or the dog is going to take me for a walk,” he said. “I think that’s enough for an old geezer.”

Gutknecht is a retired plumber of 47 years. His wife still works at a local Oasis Stop ‘N Go.

“I told her she had to keep working so I could come down here and drink coffee,” Gutknecht joked.

When his wife gets off work at 3:30 p.m., she goes to aerobics class at the swimming pool. He goes with her sometimes and sits in a chair. He never thinks about joining her in the water.

“I get my exercise right here,” he said. “I cross my leg this way and that way.”

This is the second marriage for Gutknecht. He was married for 27 years when his first wife died of a heart attack. “She was gone in seconds.”

Thirty-one years ago, he married the woman next door.

1:45 p.m.

Ariel Brim, 25, always wanted to be a mother. “It brings more meaning to your life.”

Brim sat across from her daughter, Ivy Brim-Pratt, 2, in a booth near the buffet room.

“I changed in many different ways, for the best,” she said. “The majority of the stuff I do, I do for her. She’s the main person in my life.”

Ivy, in a booster seat, ate red Jell-O and watermelon.

The Depot Grill is their special spot. Ivy likes watching the trains go by and all the waitresses. When they first arrived, they were greeted by Lovejoy, who held Ivy for a moment.

“Hi, Ivy,” Jones said as she passed.

Ivy amazes her mother every day. She has started to learn her numbers. When she speaks in full sentences instead of fragments, Brim beams with pride.

Brim said she knows Ivy will grow up to be a caring mother herself. When Ivy hears an infant crying, she looks around and is concerned.

Then Ivy got an idea. She picked up a red crayon and tried to trace her hand. Instead of small, slender fingers, her hand tracing was large and block-shaped.

“Almost, honey,” Brim said.

2 p.m.

There was a time when Frank Sinatra songs wafted from jukeboxes and mixed with bells and chimes from nearby pinball machines.

“It was kind of crazy in here,” said Jim “JJ” Winterholer, 79. “You didn’t have coffee at the office, so at 10 a.m. it got pretty busy.”

On Feb. 22, the only music inside the Depot Grill came from a black stereo on a shelf. “Walking On Sunshine” played on the radio.

There used to be jukeboxes on every table inside the restaurant, Winterholer said.

He pointed to little nooks in the wall where where blue, pink and white sugar packets sit next to salt and pepper shakers.

4 p.m.

Cook Dana Cochran passed around a dish of sauce to customers sitting at the counter. She created the sauce to tone down her spicy meals. Made from dill, cucumber and other ingredients, it already seemed to be a hit among customers and some of the waitresses.

“You’ll miss me when I’m gone,” Cochran told one of the customers. “I got a three-day weekend coming up.”

In March, Cochran — who has worked at Depot Grill for 14 years — is going to Las Vegas with Burrill and waitress Crystal Starling, who usually works the evening shift. The Las Vegas trip is to celebrate Burrill’s niece’s 21st birthday.

“I’m still trying to get them to book the hotels,” Cochran said.

5:30 p.m.

Verna Heck, who sat alone in the buffet room next to the salad bar, is a head cashier at Lowe’s, and her schedule changes frequently. She worked 5:30 a.m.-2 p.m. that day and was scheduled to work the next afternoon until 10 p.m.

Heck loves all-you-can-eat chicken on Tuesdays at Depot Grill and “the most wonderful bean soup.” Plus, “their custard pie is to die for.”

Friends introduced her to Depot Grill years ago. Heck and her youngest son — fond of trains growing up — used to joke about trying the giant breakfast called the Train Wreck. If you eat it by yourself in 30 minutes, you get it for free. If you don’t, you have to pay for it.

The Train Wreck is six plate-sized pancakes, one pound of sausage and four eggs. A small whiteboard propped on a shelf in the restaurant displays how many people have attempted it: 14 wins and 252 losses. The odds aren’t in Heck’s favor.

The record time someone ate the breakfast: 12 minutes, five seconds.

Now, Heck’s son is 20 and lives in Texas. “That’s why I’m here alone,” she said. “I like to come and relax.”

8:45 p.m.

After a couple ordered the Train Wreck, kitchen worker Don Dixon poured thick pancake mix onto a grill. “It’s almost like cake,” Cochran said.

Cochran produced a giant white plate to serve the Train Wreck on, and Dixon made quick, precise movements as he cracked four eggs onto the grill.

“It’s time to start getting ready for the shift change,” Cochran said. For the graveyard shift, three women were expected to arrive — two who work 10 p.m.-3 a.m. and one who works 10 p.m.-6 a.m.

Cochran stacked the giant pancakes and served up the eggs and sausage artfully on the side.

The Train Wreck contest started about four years ago. The rule: To win, the diner must eat it alone.

9 p.m.

Mark and Elizabeth Chandler weren’t even half done with the Train Wreck when Rocky Berlin’s family stopped by on their way out of the restaurant.

The family was amazed at the size of the meal, saying it could easily feed five people. Was the couple looking to set a record?

It doesn’t count unless you’re doing it alone, Elizabeth responded. “We’re sharing.”

She pulled out her phone and flipped through pictures a waitress took of the Chandlers with their giant breakfast.

“I’ve never seen pancakes that large in our life,” Elizabeth said. She pointed to her husband, a second-grade teacher. “It was his idea.”

9:30 p.m.

About 30 people with Cornerstone Baptist Church’s “Reformers Unanimous” settled into the buffet room, where two long tables were set up. Once a month, they come to the Depot Grill after their meeting for fellowship time.

“It’s crazy, just like this,” Kathy Thompson said, looking around as adults chatted and children colored. Her husband, Keith, is the program director.

It’s a faith-based recovery program and “not just for drugs and alcohol,” Thompson said. The program has run for 12 years and meets at 7 p.m. every single Friday. “If it’s Christmas, we meet on Christmas.”

Some participants are court-ordered to be there or referred by probation officers. Organizers put up posters to advertise and go into the Twin Falls County Jail on Sunday nights to lead Bible studies.

9:45 p.m.

Fifteen minutes before the shift change, employees started arriving with a new supply of energy as others prepared to leave. Behind the counter, a night-shift waitress put on her apron and made up a song and dance: “It’s the night shift.”

New arrivals now were mostly alone, not families, and went for the counter instead of the booths.

10 p.m.

Jeff and Crystal Spackman and their daughter Paige drove in from Kimberly to order breakfast food after a Kimberly vs. Gooding high school basketball game.

The Gooding couple met about 20 years ago while they were students at the College of Southern Idaho. Jeff remembers coming to the Depot Grill during his college days for “adult-night beverage consumption.”

“This was the place to hit after basketball games,” Crystal said. She grew up in Filer and came to the restaurant with her parents as a child. “It’s a staple.”

Depot Grill seems to be the anchor that holds historic downtown Twin Falls together, Jeff said. “No matter what’s going on downtown, this is always here.”

12:36 a.m.

In a corner near the hallway to the bathrooms, a man and two boys sat at a table with what looked like enough food for four men: steak and eggs, biscuits and gravy and an open-face turkey sandwich. Later they shared a hefty slice of chocolate cream pie.

Jay Purtell was on a “secret mission” with two of his wife’s sons, 9-year-old Isaiah and 8-year-old Mateo. Though he’s not their biological father, Purtell has definitely become dad in the three years since he met their mom.

“He’s really awesome,” Isaiah said. Purtell, who’s from upstate New York and has worked in the service industry his entire adult life, taught the boys to cook.

What are their favorite dishes to cook?

“Clams,” Isaiah answered.

“Salmon,” Mateo said.

Purtell also taught them to cook lobster and mussels, among other things.

“What are we going to do when we get older?” Purtell asked the boys, a wry smile on his face. He almost always had the same amused smile.

“I want to be a sommelier,” said Isaiah, still 12 years away from legal wine drinking age.

“No,” Purtell said, laughing. “As a family.”

“Oh, we’re going to open a restaurant named JIMS,” Isaiah remembered. It’s an acronym: J for Jay, I for Isaiah, M for Mateo and S for Skyler, one of their older brothers who also likes to cook.

Purtell has no kids of his own, which is fine with him.

“I’ve always loved kids, but I don’t necessarily like babies. I like to think I learn as much from them as they learn from me.”

As he and the boys talked about their antics, it was clear that Purtell is a fun and loving father.

“Whoever’s up gets to go,” Purtell said of his late-night “secret missions” to the Depot Grill and other 24-hour eateries. “But the rule is, you don’t tell” the other brothers who were asleep.

For boys out late on a secret mission, they ended their night by bringing lots of attention to themselves. Before they left, they were tasked with blowing wooden whistles as a waitress carried out the Train Wreck to a recently arrived guest.

By now, it was well past 1 a.m., and the bar rush was on.

1:53 a.m.

Bar patrons had been loudly trickling in, and almost every table and booth was full. Toward the back, a married woman, an engaged woman and a woman with an “idiot boyfriend” ate in a booth after a night of drinking at the Log Tavern. On the other side of the restaurant, a quartet that included a transgender woman and a woman vocal about being a lesbian spent two hours eating and laughing.

In a corner booth, two cousins seemed not to be enjoying their meals. Joe Morales ordered biscuits and gravy but sent them back after a few bites. Alfred Kaufman ate just one of his half-dozen chicken tenders, but he did ask for a box.

“I been comin’ to the Depot Grill for so long,” said Kaufman, who lives in Tacoma, Wash., but visits the Magic Valley often. “I had to come get a plate since I was in the vicinity.”

Kaufman and Morales had just watched another cousin, local rapper Yung Skillz, perform at a nearby bar. Despite obvious signs of their recent alcohol consumption, or possibly because of the alcohol, Kaufman was willing to get deep.

“I just enjoy the small things,” Kaufman said. “I like books, coffee. My favorite book is probably the Godfather series by Mario Puzo. I’ll read anything, though, that I feel like I can learn from. I just recently read a Gandhi book. It turns out he wasn’t such a ‘yes man’ as I thought he was. He stood up for what he believed in, almost went to war for it.”

2:50 a.m.

The bar rush was slowing, and the noise level dropped significantly as D&S Checker Taxi drivers began taking patrons home.

In a booth by the restaurant’s entrance, Skip Urias and childhood friend Larry McElhaney grabbed a snack after a night out at Hometown Sports Bar & Grill. For Urias, it was his second trip to the Depot Grill in the past 24 hours, and he chowed down on what was probably the first salad ordered in several hours.

Urias and McElhaney grew up together in Lodi, Calif., the town Creedence Clearwater Revival sang about: “Oh! Lord, stuck in Lodi again,” is how the chorus goes.

McElhaney is no longer stuck in Lodi, though. He moved to Twin Falls a few years back and drives a forklift in the cold warehouse at the Chobani yogurt plant. The cold warehouse is kept at 46 degrees at all times, and he works 12-hour shifts seven days out of every two weeks.

“We work two days one week and five days the next week,” McElhaney said. “Every week is the opposite.”

The long-haired, bearded McElhaney said he enjoys working for Chobani and rarely gets tired of eating the yogurt. Good thing, too, because he’s allowed to take home two cases a week.

Urias, who used to have a similar job at a General Mills plant, is still happily stuck in Lodi, although he was recently laid off from a construction job for the winter. He’s a solidly built man with thick arms, rough worker’s hands and rugged good looks. He was married once for a short time, annulled the marriage and now lives with his two dogs.

“I seen a shirt a while back that said, ‘When I die, my dogs get everything,’” Urias said, laughing. “That’s going to be me, man.”

3:12 a.m.

A few stragglers from the bar rush were sleepily finishing their meals and squaring away their checks. But Keilona Blunt, 23, and Sara Coach, 24, were still going strong.

“We usually come later,” Coach said. “We go to the bars first, until they stop serving alcohol. And then after that we go to Bumpin Bernie’s, where they have a dance with no alcohol. But everyone’s pretty much already drunk.”

“This is my best friend of 15 years,” said Blunt, who goes by Kiki.

“We met in third grade, and then I moved away,” Coach said. “And then I came back, and somehow we magically …”

“I searched for her,” Blunt interrupted.

“In 15 years, we’ve only had two fights,” Blunt said proudly. They can’t even remember what started the first one.

“Maybe we’ve only had one, then,” Blunt corrected herself. “I think it was just that two years, girl.”

Wait, what? Only one fight, but it lasted two years?

“She met the father of her child, and some things happened,” Blunt said. “And then I didn’t see her for two years.”

Finally, Coach reached out to Blunt on Facebook. It wasn’t the kindest message, but it got them talking again, and soon they put it all behind them.

“You know when you meet somebody, and you’re soulmates?” Blunt asked. “So, like, me and her are like soulmates. But because she’s not a lesbian or bisexual we can never be together. But she’s my best friend. She’s like my sister. I’m perfectly content with that.”

4:14 a.m.

Just five minutes after Blunt and Coach walked out the door, Blaine Oglesbee was the first person to start his day at the Depot Grill, taking the first stool at the counter.

The lone waitress remaining, Burrill, put in Oglesbee’s order before his jacket was off. Oglesbee doesn’t eat there every day, but he’s there regularly enough for Burrill to know his order. His food was in front of him within five minutes: bacon, hash browns, eggs over-easy.

“They see me come in, they’re cooking it already,” Oglesbee said. “I get paid twice a month, so I come here and have breakfast instead of having it at home. Once in a while, I might be here a couple more times a month.”

He works at Kapstone making cardboard boxes. Or fiberboard boxes, if you’re a Kapstone employee.

“I got chewed out by a supervisor once,” Oglesbee recalled. “Told me, ‘it’s made of fiber, not cards.’”

Oglesbee has worked for the company for 31 years, but he worked mostly on the graveyard shift until four years ago, when he was switched to day shift. Now he needs to be at work at 5:45 a.m. every day, but he lives in Buhl and heads to Twin Falls early in case of bad weather or car problems.

A second man entered about five minutes after Oglesbee and took a stool on the opposite end of the counter. He appeared to be a weathered cowboy with well-worn boots, a thick flannel jacket and an old straw hat.

On the few occasions he spoke to Burrill, it was more of a grunt than words.

“It’s nice, though, when the sober guys come in first thing in the morning,” Burrill said. “After dealing with the drunks all night.”