Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Kristi Hensley is sitting in a booth at one of the two restaurants she owns in Baker City, but at this moment on a cold, sunny Monday morning she is thinking only of the other restaurant.

The one just two blocks south on 10th Street.

The one that’s the source of the acrid aroma of smoke that still clings to Hensley’s clothes on this, the day after.

Hensley and her husband, Chris, have for 11 years owned the Inland Cafe, a fixture in Baker City for more than half a century and one of those hometown diners that locals mention when visitors ask where they can get a hearty plateful of biscuits and gravy.

The Inland, at 2715 10th St., was severely damaged in a fire Sunday night.

A little more than half a day later, Hensley can scarcely comprehend what happened.

“I feel like I’m going to wake up,” she says as sunshine streams in the window at her other restaurant, the Eagle Cap Grill. “It’s so surreal, I didn’t really believe it until I actually walked inside this morning.”

What Hensley saw inside the Inland was a familiar setting, the place where generations of diners have buttered pancakes, sipped coffee and crunched bacon, rendered strange and ugly by flames and smoke and water.

Tufts of pink insulation litter the floor and dangle from the ceiling like macabre decorations.

Ash fouls the grill where, less than a day before, cooks cracked eggs and flipped crispy mounds of hashbrowns.

“I’m still shaking,” Hensley says of the experience of walking through what was left of the restaurant where she has invested so much time, money and effort.

But as much as she laments the damage to the building, Hensley says she is much more troubled by how the fire will affect her employees and her customers.

“I have the greatest employees in the world,” she says of the two dozen or so people who work at the Inland, all of whom arrived Sunday night to try to console her as she shivered in the 26-degree weather and watched smoke billow from the building.

“They’re like my family. That’s the hardest part of this. And we treat our customers like family.”

The damage was so extensive that on Monday Hensley wasn’t sure it would be possible to rebuild the cafe that has been serving diners since about 1942.

But after talking with her insurance company she decided that she will move ahead with a goal of reopening the Inland.

Hensley said she met with her employees and they plan to return as well. There is no timeline.

Although she opened the Eagle Cap Grill in 2016 in part to handle overflow from the Inland, Hensley says it’s not possible to, in effect, move the Inland, even temporarily.

The Eagle Cap Grill isn’t open for breakfast, and its kitchen isn’t equipped for a full-scale breakfast menu.

“We were set up perfectly at the Inland,” she says. “Everything was streamlined.”

In any case Hensley says she doesn’t believe the ambience at the Inland — the things that made it special — could be moved to a new building as though it were a table or a microwave oven.

Although running even a single restaurant, much less two, is a considerable commitment, Hensley says the loyalty of the Inland’s customers, and their obvious love for the place, helps her put her efforts in perspective.

“It definitely makes it worthwhile,” she says. “We treat our customers like family.”

Hensley says she had only an inkling of her customers’ affection for the Inland before she and her husband bought the cafe in November 2007.

She had worked for 15 years for Food Services of America, a company that supplies food to restaurants, and the Inland was one of her clients.

Hensley said Sharron and Don Orr, who had owned the Inland for the previous 12 years, finally “convinced” her to buy the restaurant in 2007.

Hensley isn’t entirely unfamiliar with the restaurant business — and not only because of her career with Food Services of America.

Her grandmother, Billee Howard, owned Billee’s restaurant in Halfway, known today as Wild Bill’s.

“I was peeling potatoes for the restaurant probably before I could walk,” she says with a smile.

After buying the Inland, Hensley says, she came to realize that the unassuming little building on the west side of 10th Street was for many people far more than a place to get a burger or an omelette.

She began to understand that for many longtime customers the Inland figures prominently in their life stories.

See more in the Jan. 16, 2019, issue of the Baker City Herald.