Thursday, July 18, 2002

Bette’s still serving it up after 53 years

Published in the Current

Bette’s Lunch and Breakfast hides along the edge of Route 1 in Scarborough, right next to the fire station. It’s behind a tree and doesn’t have a very obvious sign, but Betty Pennell doesn’t mind.

Entering the diner can be an act of faith, if the “Open” sign isn’t in the front window. The place can be quiet enough on a weekday lunch hour to cause doubt about whether the griddle is on inside.

But more than likely, Betty’s inside wielding a spatula, cooking up burgers. In the mornings, it’s mostly ham and eggs, though she also makes pancakes. It’s the same place she has been for nearly 53 years.

The place has an old-time family feel. The prices on the board haven’t changed for years: A hamburger is listed at 40 cents.

There’s not even a cash register – just a drawer next to the griddle, and Betty’s mind keeps track of the bill.

Prices are relative. One man, a regular, had been coming there since his youth. Now an adult, he paid two dollars for two hamburgers and a soda. This reporter, sitting next to him, paid the same amount for a single burger and a soda. But the second time I went in, I paid only one dollar for two burgers.

The building itself once sat in South Portland but was moved to make way for shipyards in World War II. The owner then, a man who owned three restaurants in the area, moved the building to Scarborough, “and here it sits,” Pennell said.

When the fire station next door wanted to expand, Pennell refused to sell. As a result, she said, she doesn’t get much business from the firefighters, though
she does see policemen now and again. Her reluctance to change is still evident.

The original wallpaper is still on the walls, though a bit darker now, with decades of griddle smoke. “I’m going to paint it sometime, if I ever get around to it,” Pennell said.

She doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry, though, and it’s no surprise for a woman nearing 80 years of age who gets up at 4 a.m. each day to serve breakfast to her customers, who are often workers at Scarborough Downs.

Before she bought the diner, she worked for King Cole in a nearby potato chip factory. “They made good chips,” she said. She doesn’t serve chips—or French fries—with her burgers, though.

She’s feisty, and many of the customers, including Butch Bearsley, a customer since he was a kid, tell stories about Pennell’s spunk, including her sometimes loose interpretations of food orders. “You get what she wants you to get,” Bearsley said with a smile. Somehow, it seems, she always knows what customers want.

Bearsley brings his own kids to the diner now, and said they prefer Bette’s over McDonald’s or Burger King. Though the fast-food joints across the road may have cut into her customer base, Pennell said she doesn’t mind. “I’m not going to say anything against them,” she said, “but I’m not like that.”

The community recognized that years ago, but is beginning to forget.

“I remember you could never get a place to sit in here,” Bearsley said.

Now, even on Sundays, there are some empty tables, Pennell said.

Most of her clientele are long-term customers, but, she said, she sees plenty of summer visitors. If nobody’s around, she sits and watches the traffic on Route 1.

Betty may be losing a step or two as she ages, and some friends have encouraged her to stop. But she just shook her head when the subject came up. “There aren’t too many places like this left,” she said.