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Seligman woman's Route 66 diner a labor of love

By Larry Hendricks

Arizona Daily Sun

Published: Sunday, Sept. 16 2012 12:35 p.m. MDT

Lilo Russell, owner of Westside Lilo's Cafe in Seligman, Ariz., shows off a freshly made torte.

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

SELIGMAN, Ariz. (AP) — The aromas of baking bread and sweet pies meander through the diner.

Through a wall of windows, diners can watch tourists gawk and gaze at the sights along the Mother Road, Route 66. Conversations by locals are of the weather and daily life. Conversations by tourists, often in languages other than English, speak to a mysterious excitement, the subject an enigma.

The matriarch of Route 66 Westside Lilo's comes out of the kitchen. Lilo (pronounced Lee-Lo) Russell grabs a cup of coffee and takes a seat. She has been baking.

"It's in my blood," she says of her decision to be a diner owner.

Welcome to a day in her life.

Her grandmother in Germany was a chef, and Russell came to Seligman for a visit in 1962 with her new husband Patrick. They had married in 1961 while Patrick was stationed in Germany during a hitch with the U.S. Army.

"We came by for me to meet (Patrick's parents) and got stuck here," she said, laughing.

That was 50 years ago. When the diner went up for sale 17 years ago, she bought it.

"And I've been in business ever since," she says.

In the beginning of the business, she was focused on making it work and spent long days at the diner. She would come in at 5 a.m.

"But I'm too old for that, so I do all the things in the back of the house," she says, adding that her daughter Brenda is the one who comes in at 5 a.m.

Now, she comes in early, bakes the pies, the cakes (especially the carrot cake) and the dinner rolls. She also works on the daily specials — particularly the German dishes like goulash, sauerbraten and schnitzel. She's usually done by 3 or 4 p.m.

"If I'm lucky," she says.

She adds that she enjoys the customers the most — not just the regulars, who keep the business going during the colder months, but the visitors who come for Route 66. Compliments about her food keep her going.

"That's really what it's all about," Russell says. "Bottom line."

In the winter months, 80 percent of her customers are locals. In the summer, the same percentage are tourists. The biggest challenge to keep a diner in a small town going is finding good staff and keeping the place warm and friendly for customers to feel comfortable.

Photos of her parents adorn a wall in the diner, and she admits that she still misses Germany. She says she tries to go back once a year.

Besides, Seligman and the restaurant are host to a German Fest in June, and she's already making preparations for the 2013 festival.

Would she have done anything differently?

"I wouldn't," she says, definitively. She has a beautiful home, three children, seven grandchildren and even a great-grandchild. She volunteers for nonprofit health services and has a fulfilling life in the little town that refuses to die.

Will she stay?

"Oh, yeah," she says, smiling. "After 50 years? I wouldn't even consider moving. I enjoy going away, but I always want to come back. My life is here, really."

If she would have been asked that question in 1964, the answer might have been different.

"But not now," she says.

At 71, she's not going to retire anytime soon.

"The best thing for me would be to keel over back there," she says, pointing to the kitchen.

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