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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Val Criddle, left, and "Web" Webster, right, chat at Sill's Cafe. The cafe has many regulars who have gotten to know each other well.

LAYTON — It's 3:27 a.m., and Dan Evans waits outside Sill's Cafe for John Sill to open up. Evans is such a regular that he walks in the back door when Sill arrives and even gets the coffee on as Sill starts his morning routine.

Sill's doesn't officially open until 5 a.m., but as Sill preps his S.O.S. and hamburger gravies and dough for the cafe's famous and award-winning scones, a few old boys trickle in for coffee anyway, entering through the back door.

By 7 a.m. as other regulars arrive, they're greeted by name and often have coffee waiting for them on the counter before they sit down.

Early on, coffee is the most popular menu item at Sill's.

But breakfast is definitely the most popular meal, served anytime.

There are breakfasts named for former customers and their regular orders: Dale's, Emily's, John's, Matt's, Boss's and the Post Office, named for a mailman who used to frequent the cafe.

And of course there are the scones, the plate-sized-dripping-with-butter-and-honey-wishing-your-stomach-was-larger scones.

By the end of this year, it could all be gone.

The Utah Department of Transportation wants to improve traffic movement through the southern part of Layton.

UDOT's preferred alternative for construction, which is highlighted in a draft environmental impact statement, indicates that five homes and up to 11 businesses could be affected. There's no mistaking the red "X" over Sill's Cafe on UDOT's map.

For motorists, that means a new freeway interchange at Main Street where the current interchange only lets you enter the freeway if you're headed south.

But for the white-haired Sill, 46, and his customers, that means the coffee gang will have to find a new place to, as they say, shoot the bull.

Though there's no telling exactly when Sill's would have to close, it could be as soon as the end of this year.

It seems a shame, say Sam McCrea and John Volt, two middle-aged regulars who work at Hill Air Force Base. A lot of Sill's regulars are former or current Hill employees.

"You lose a little piece of yourself when a place like this closes," says McCrea, from Ogden.

On this particular morning McCrea and Volt, from South Weber, each had a bowl of oatmeal, a breakfast they order about half of the week. The other half of the week it's biscuits and gravy.

They reminisce about their daily visits to Sill's that started as more sporadic visits when they were younger and have become a daily ritual.

Sill steps out of the kitchen as they're chatting and cracks that McCrea and Volt are from the "funny farm," so people should disregard what they say.

They shoot back, saying that Sill comes from that particular farm, too.

"It's a place for guys our age," McCrea says.

During the morning, it is.

Most patrons are middle-aged or retired.

Garry Rose, Kaysville, had some coffee at around 4 a.m., left and came back later when more of the coffee gang showed up after dawn.

Les Weaver, who works in Kaysville, has been coming to Sill's for 15 years. In that time, he's created friendships.

"Everybody knows everybody," said Stephanie Solis, a server who's worked at Sill's for eight years.

Solis can name almost everyone in the cafe at any given time, which is something you don't hear very often today.

It's like taking the television show "Cheers" and switching the beer for coffee.

Everybody knows your name. And they're always glad you came.

Ron Udink, Clinton, and Walter Thompson, Layton, have been coming to Sill's for decades. Cecil Kirk sidles up and starts reading through the obituaries, looking to see if his own obit is in there.

Though he's joking, there's a certain way to tell time at Sill's. If you don't see one of the gang for a few days, you know something's amiss.

Solis said the crowd of men has gotten so rowdy that politics and religion have both been banned as conversation topics.

When one patron finds out the Deseret News is doing a story on the cafe, he jokes that he's drinking coffee and doesn't want his picture in the paper because his LDS bishop reads it.

Looks like religion is fair game again.

Of course, the newspaper has always been fair game. So are gardening and guns. You have to imagine that politics slips back in from time to time.

Kirk has been coming to Sill's since it opened in 1957.

He remembers when Golden and Genevieve Sill started the cafe after leaving a former site when the rent got too high.

Golden served as a Layton city councilman and mayor twice: in the 1960s and in the 1980s.

The senior Sills' children took turns working at the cafe off and on over the years, and four of their nine surviving children got into the business.

John bought Sill's from an older brother. One sister is the Annie of the restaurant Grannie Annie's in Kaysville, and another sister is the Emmy of the eatery Doug and Emmy's across the street from Sill's.

Doug and Emmy's will likely lose its parking lot if UDOT's plans go through.

What might be surprising, though, is that there isn't a sense of bitterness from the Sill's gang about the future. It's more like longing for the past and present.

Steve Whitesides, Layton, used to come to Sill's with his father and considers the Sill's crowd to be family.

"I would like to see everyone chip in a few bucks and move it down the road," he said. "It's too bad, but progress ... "

Whitesides trails off. Progress.

The patrons recognize that progress has to happen and that the current interchange isn't cutting it.

But they still need somewhere to go, and nowhere is like Sill's.

Udink, who used to skip school and show up at Sill's in his '57 Ford, jokes that he'll just start going to the Sill's Cafe in Mountain View, Wyo., about 100 miles from Layton. John Sill also owns that one but plans to put it up for sale soon.

The rest of the gang knows that discussions about the interchange have been going on for a decade or more, so there's a hint of skepticism that anything will ever happen.

But UDOT hasn't created an EIS for this project before. The next step is to seek approval of the EIS from the Federal Highway Administration, which could come this summer. Designs for the project could begin in the fall, barring no delays.

As for John Sill, the man who's been slaving away since 3:30 a.m., he's not too bent out of shape about the impending end of his cafe. He's been there for about 17 years straight. And he admits that he's tired — a 3:30 a.m. job will do that to you, even if it is only four times a week — but part of his sadness comes from the impending loss of the land.

The land Sill's sits on was originally owned by Sill's great-grandfather, who settled in Layton from New Jersey around 1864.

It's the last of his family's land.

"I was planning on passing it on to one of my kids," he said. "Now, I'll be passing it on to the state of Utah."

Not exactly the plan.

But he realizes that construction will affect fewer people if his cafe is sacrificed. All he can hope is that the state deals fairly with him and gives him a decent price for the location.

Relocation of the cafe sounds like a great way to keep Sill's alive, Sill says, but isn't likely.

"I don't know if it would be the same anywhere else," he said.

E-mail: jdougherty@desnews.com