The Idle Isle Café has survived 100 years on Brigham City’s Main Street, simply by being its old-fashioned self.
The original marble-and-onyx soda fountain counter, grandfather clock and hand-crafted wooden booths are still there, along with the 1940s Coca-Cola dispensers.
Amid nostalgic ambiance, classic comfort food takes a starring role. Beef pot roast ($12) is the biggest seller on the menu.
Another favorite is the open-faced, gravy-smothered hot turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes ($11.50) — and the aroma of Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house.
Despite its popularity, the hot turkey sandwich is only offered on Monday. The small kitchen was initially built to service only seven booths, and over the years, the restaurant expanded its dining space and menu. So there’s not enough kitchen capacity to cook everything every day, said owner Travis Porter.
So regulars know that in addition to the basic menu, they can rely on the hot turkey sandwich or liver and onions every Monday; corned beef and cabbage on Tuesday; grilled Reuben sandwich on Tuesday and Wednesday; meatloaf on Thursday; trout fillet on Friday; and turkey dinner or ribeye steak on Saturday.
“You know how Girl Scout cookies are only offered one time a year? It creates a desire when you can’t get it all the time, and it brings people in,” said kitchen manager Andrea LeDuc, a Western Culinary Institute graduate who has been cooking at the Idle Isle three years.
LeDuc also uses specials to throw in more creative, updated dishes. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, you might find specials of pasta carbonara with bacon, chicken, mushrooms and a fried egg; a Santa Fe sandwich of roast beef, green chiles, jack cheese and chipotle mayo on house-made focaccia bread; blackened trout, or pepper Philly salad — the same ingredients in a pepper Philly steak sandwich, but in a salad. Among the soup-of-the-day staples like chicken noodle or French onion, you might find chicken tortilla or Italian sausage with kale.
“We have built our business on consistency,” Porter said. “But we also have customers that don’t want the same things they had 30 years ago. So we balance it with different specials.”
The Idle Isle survived the Great Depression, World War II and ownership changes. But it almost didn’t survive the COVID-19 pandemic. When in-house dining was shut down last spring, the staff went from 34 employees to 12.
“A year ago, I wasn’t sure we would make it to 100 years,” Porter said. “On March 26, I drafted a letter informing my managers that we would be closing down. But I couldn’t do it. You can’t be in business without being a little stubborn, and without a lot of support. A lot of things went right for us.”
Now back to 33 employees, business is actually a bit ahead of pre-pandemic figures, Porter said, and continues to do more to-go meals and bakery goods like cookies, cakes and pies.
It’s a long road from the candy and ice cream shop that Verabel and Percy Knudson opened in May 1921 in a building called the Armeda Block after its first owner, Armeda Snow Young. Built in 1892, it had already housed a harness shop, grocery store, barber shop, law office, hardware store, china shop, restaurant and basement bowling alley.
Before opening, Percy Knudson worked at the Bluebird Café in Logan, opened in 1914, to learn the candy and ice cream business.
In a contest to name the new shop, Mrs. Walderman Call won a $10 prize for suggesting “Idle Isle.” Some say it may have been intended as “Idle Aisle,” but the name stuck.
The Knudsons built a candy-making facility in the basement and invested in the soda fountain counter and wooden booths that remain unchanged. Around 1929, Verabel’s brother, David H. Call and his wife, LaRita, became partners. Percy managed the business, David ordered supplies and made candy, Verabel ran the kitchen and LaRita did cooking and pie making.
In the 1930s, many Hollywood actors traveled to Sun Valley by private railroad cars, and Brigham City was often a stop on the route. Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable, Carole Lombard and Paulette Goddard are among the stars who visited the Idle Isle.
During World War II, workers building the Bushnell Military Hospital in Brigham City breakfasted at the Idle Isle every morning, and the restaurant also packed over 100 lunches for them every day. In the company history, Verabel recalled getting up at 5 a.m. to open the café to feed the workers.
The Bushnell Military Hospital cared for war amputees who were far from home. The Knudsons and Calls were among many Brigham City residents who took the soldiers’ visiting families into their homes. They also promised every amputee a free meal if he could make it to the café on his new prosthetic limb.
According to the company history, the Idle Isle became a sponsor to provide work and support to Japanese-Americans ordered to register for internment camps as per President Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066. Some of these became long-time employees who contributed to the Idle Isle's success.
Meanwhile, David Call developed over 40 candy recipes, including the Almond Cream Toffee, still the company’s flagship product today. It’s a cream toffee center dipped in milk chocolate and rolled in chopped roasted almonds.
From 1971 to 1994, the Knudsons' grandson, Richard VanDyke, took over the business after years of working with his grandparents and Uncle David. Eventually, he decided to sell the restaurant to focus solely on candy.
“It was with a very sad heart, as it was difficult to let go,” VanDyke said. “But before, there had always been a partner to handle one side or the other, and I knew I couldn’t do both of them. The Internet was just developing, and I felt there would be a market for candy sales.”
A restaurant staffer, Cariann Jeppsen Brady, approached her parents, Kim and Ann Jeppsen, about buying the café. It became a separate business from the candy store, but both carried the Idle Isle name. The café kept the south half of the building, the candy store the north half, and candy production continued in the basement. In 2004, the candy business moved across the street, allowing both businesses to expand. Today, Idle Isle Fine Candies is owned by Richard VanDyke’s wife, Shari VanDyke, and her sister, Julie Gailey.
The restaurant business was a new adventure for the Jeppsen family, as everyone pitched in to bus tables, wash dishes, make salads, cook recipes and even pit apricots for jam.
“It became our new life. We had every meal here,” said daughter Jana Jeppsen Porter, who was 14 when her mother, Ann Jeppsen, took the cafe's helm. “I started out washing dishes, and I was the worst dishwasher ever!”
Today, Jana makes the pies, including the iconic Idleberry pie ($4.95) that's a mixture of blueberries and Marionberries (a type of blackberry).
When Jana married Travis Porter in 1998, “I didn’t realize that I would be running the Idle Isle,” he said. “My first day here was Peach Days. I had five minutes of training and got to herd everyone who came through the door.”
At his in-laws’ request, he managed the restaurant for nine years, then left to work in the financial industry. When the Jeppsens wanted to retire in 2015, they approached Travis and Jana about assuming ownership.
“My answer was no,” Travis Porter said. But that changed after he and Jana went on a rare “date night” at the Idle Isle.
“I was reminded of the feeling when I managed there, and the feeling when I first set foot in this building," he said. "I wanted to make sure we could preserve it and improve it.”
If you’re looking for the café today, you’ll find that the outside awning, a familiar sight for roughly 50 years, has been removed. One of the Porters’ goals was to renovate the storefront with a new façade similar to the original one.
“We are in our ugly phase right now,” Travis Porter said. “In a few weeks, we will light up Main Street again.”