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Photos By Lee Benson, Deseret News
Fred Pannunzio poses at the counter of Mom's Cafe with waitress Jerilynn Erickson. Pannunzio bought the place in 2008.
Oh heck. This place practically runs itself. —Carolyn Jensen

SALINA, Sevier County —

Back in his game warden days, Fred Pannunzio, 58, was called a lot of things other than his own name.

But he never heard the one they're calling him now.

Mom.

That's what you get when you buy one of Utah's oldest and most iconic restaurants.

On something of a whim 31/2 years ago, Fred, freshly retired with a nice pension after a 30-year career working as a conservation officer for the Division of Wildlife Resources, pulled out his checkbook and put a down payment on the famous Mom's Cafe.

He bought it from the late Carolyn Jensen, aka "Mom," who had owned the restaurant with her husband, Mel, since 1975. Before that, another Mom owned it, and that was after the original Mom opened the doors in 1926.

Mom's Cafe on the corner of State and Main streets has been a Salina institution almost as long as Salina has been an institution.

But in 2008, Carolyn was in her 70s and ready for a rest. One day she was sitting at the desk she kept in the middle of the restaurant when Fred was at a nearby table with friends drinking coffee — a not uncommon thing for Fred to do.

"Why don't you buy this cafe?" Carolyn asked Fred, knowing the game warden was recently retired and, still young at 55, looking for the next big thing.

She listed all the positives. No chasing poachers during the freezing rain. Inside work. All the free coffee he could drink.

Fred countered with the fact that, other than eating in a lot of them, he knew nothing about the restaurant business.

"Oh heck," said Carolyn. "This place practically runs itself."

So Fred signed the contract that made him the owner of a cafe with not just a healthy local reputation but a national one as well.

Mom's Cafe has been on the cover of National Geographic. It's been the subject of various glowing national restaurant reviews, including "One of the Best Places To Eat in the United States" by Eat Your Way Across the USA. Its walls are lined with famous people who have dined there, from Willie Nelson to Tom Brokaw to Ashlee Judd. Its scones, biscuits and chicken-fried steak have been praised far and wide. People will crawl on their hands and knees for Mom's pies.

How hard could it be, thought Fred — running a tried-and-true institution such as this?

Almost four years later, he has the answer.

Much harder than he thought.

"Just because you drink coffee here your whole life doesn't mean you know how to run the place," he says. "I came in with the whole wrong mindset; I wanted to come in, get the money out of the till, and and that was about it."

It does practically run itself, says Fred, "As long as you're here."

There's been a lot of trial and error. One change Fred thought would be a good idea was "updating" the waitress outfits. He decided to switch from the longtime turquoise and peach dresses to white shirts and black pants.

In no time the suggestion box by the cash register was bulging with suggestions: DON'T CHANGE.

So the waitresses went back to the turquoise and peach.

Other "Mr. Mom" changes have worked out OK, though. The portions are bigger than they used to be, you can now have all the napkins you want, and no one seems to mind that where the doll collection used to be in the back of the store there are now pictures of fishing and hunting.

The constant is the food.

"We've kept the same home-cookin,' " says Fred. "Everything's fresh, everything's homemade."

What would really help, he grudgingly admits, is a partner to help him run the place. Mom could use a mom.

But Fred is single, with no current strong prospects, and he's the first to admit that "Hey, how'd you like to get married and help me run my cafe?" isn't the most alluring of proposals.

Better stick with: "Heck, it practically runs itself."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.