A portrait of Linda Lefaver has a place of honor in the cafe she built over two decades. She died Feb. 26 at the age of 75.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — For 24 years Linda Lefaver took orders, poured coffee, served plates, ran the kitchen and created a family with the regulars at Linda's Cafe.
Her passing just over a month ago could have meant the end of one of the city's favorite breakfast spots. But Lefaver wasn't going to let all her hard work in making Linda's Cafe a success disappear: She found someone willing to continue her legacy.
"It's a total honor to take over," said new owner Peter Wheeler last week. "Linda was a friend of mine for many many years when I was first opening up Empire [Cafe] ... one of the first things she asked me is, 'are you nuts?' And I guess I proved it."
Wheeler purchased the Union Street eatery on Feb. 1 but delayed making any announcements out of respect for Lefaver. She'd been a good friend, he said, and he'd often stop to talk to her about business. She'd loan him equipment when he needed it or items if he'd run out of something or just listen when he needed to vent.
When Lefaver became ill, she chose Wheeler as the person to continue her cafe. Her daughter, Pam Lefaver, has stayed on to help Wheeler learn the ropes.
"It's been quite the experience learning something totally different than what I've been doing at the Empire," Wheeler said. "Luckily, I've got a fantastic staff that's training me.
"It's been emotional as well. There's been a lot of things going on in our lives. We're trying to support each other emotionally and grow the business and still keep the spirit of Linda here because this is Linda's Cafe."
Wheeler opened Empire Cafe on Main Street two years ago. The eatery inside Berkshire Emporium offers paninis, crepes, coffees and ice cream. The ultimate goal, he said, is to merge the two cafes because it was to difficult to run both. The new business will eventually be called Linda's Empire Cafe.
For now, he's making subtle changes to place his imprint on the business.
"It's getting [customers] used to change but at a slow pace," he said. "I needed to come in and learn the business first, not change the business first. I needed to learn what the employees are all about," and turning to Lefaver said, "she knows this business far more than I do. Pam has been fantastic through this whole thing."
The homey feeling with the mismatched coffee mugs and tablecloths is still there, but now the silverware is wrapped. There have been some additions to the lunch menu — including a well-received fish and chips dish on Fridays — and Wheeler's considering if he can stay open an hour or two longer in the afternoon.
The staff's still the same, with Lefaver, who worked for her mother for 20 years, helping run the eatery and Alfred "Al" Galli on the grill. Galli's got 50 years experience and Linda Lefaver had worked for him when owned The Capitol.
Wheeler said he'd always pictured Linda retiring and enjoying life but Lefaver said her mother could never let go, she was too independent and a "one-woman show."
"It wasn't just her business, it was her baby," she said. "She never would have walked away. Even when she was sick, she had a hard time not being here."
Lefaver also told her daughter that she shouldn't run the business but rather enjoy her time with family because it required such hard work and dedication. Pam Lefaver said she was happy to have Wheeler take over.
"It also made Mom be able to rest in peace better knowing that the doors weren't closed," she said.
Wheeler wants to make sure Linda Lefaver's spirit continues to be felt even as he puts his own "flair" on the business. Lefaver built a loyal customer base that was like an extended family and never let anyone leave hungry, they said.
"It's amazing the amount of people who are here every day ... that doesn't happen overnight," Wheeler said. "There was 24 years of very hard work ... to be able to walk into an established business is huge."
Lefaver's still watching over the business she built — a large framed portrait of her now hangs on the wall.
"One of the things I talked to Linda about early on is Linda's is not Linda's without Linda. We have to figure out how to keep her in here," he said. "It's really important to me not just as a businessperson but I think it's the right thing to do ... It's not my hard work that went into it, it was her hard work, it was Pam's hard work and the rest of the staff."
Linda's Cafe is open from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays and 6 to 11 a.m. on weekends. Information: 413-663-8003
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