- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 18, 2014

PALOMA, Ill. (AP) - Amy Sprenger is a little bit stubborn and a little more humble.

When she was asked if she is proud of her ability to keep the Paloma Diner afloat, her 28-year-old daughter, Brittney Foster, already knew the answer.

“She should be proud. (It was) a lot of hard work, stress and lack of sleep,” Foster said. “The list goes on and on.

“She should be proud.”

Sprenger, 48, reluctantly agreed. After all, she’s worked for the last 27 years, almost always six days a week, at the diner on U.S. 24 in the tiny Adams County community. (Paloma’s population is so small that the U.S. Census doesn’t list it.)

“The restaurant world takes your life,” she said.

In December, the Paloma Diner moved next door into the former First Bankers Trust building, and it is flourishing again.

But there’s more to this story than simply a new location.

Fulfilling a dream

Lesa Richmiller, Sprenger’s sister and co-owner of the diner, was killed by a drunk driver on U.S. 24 near Paloma on Nov. 21, 2009. Sprenger was the first one at the scene and had the difficult task of informing the rest of the family — including her sister’s 13-year-old daughter — that Lesa was gone.

Sprenger and her sister had taken over the diner in December 2000. They had both worked there for 13 or so years previously. The diner has been around since the early 1960s.

“We always did everything together — from the time we were little until the end,” Sprenger said solemnly.

It was their dream to open their own restaurant. That opportunity came when the diner’s former manager walked away from the business. Richmiller and Sprenger talked to the building’s owner about taking over. They were given the green light, as long as they could open it within a week.

“It was the first time in our lives that we weren’t going to have a job, and it was pretty scary,” Sprenger said. “Almost all of our family worked there anyway, so it was an opportunity. We always wanted our own dream. We always wanted our own restaurant.”

They had to start from scratch, but the sisters opened the restaurant in a week.

The dream — the diner — was theirs.

Sprenger said she managed the front of the store, while her sister managed the back. Richmiller ordered and prepared the food, using her own homemade recipes. Many of the recipes are still used today, but Richmiller didn’t write all of them down.

However, after the accident, Sprenger was prepared to give up her dream.

Who could blame her? It wasn’t even the first time she had lost a sibling to a car accident. Her brother, Jay VanZandt, was killed on U.S. 24 in 1980, just a few miles away from where her sister died.

Her family convinced her to try. That’s what Richmiller would’ve wanted, they said.

“It’s tough, but you gotta be tough,” Sprenger said. “I’ve done this all my life. I really don’t know a lot more. I always had the dream in the back of my head.”

Six days after the accident, the diner was open again.

Pain isn’t going away

Foster, 27, said sometime in the year before her aunt’s crash, Richmiller had asked her if she could work for her for a couple of days. The opportunity gave her valuable experience she would need later.

Foster stepped in after the accident as a cook, thankful that she had paid more attention than she realized.

“It was a big job to fill, just stepping into it,” she said. “The few days I filled in, I’m like, ‘Oh, no, this ain’t too bad.’ But doing it for six days a week for a couple of years, it was pretty rough. I was really stressed for a while. The emotional draining of everything that had happened was on top of it. We got through it.”

Sprenger said running the business without her sister wasn’t the only problem she dealt with.

“It wasn’t only doing the job. It was also dealing with what your mind is already going through,” she said.

More than four years later, both have moments when they forget Richmiller isn’t there.

“You get some excitement, and you want to share it,” Sprenger said, her voice getting quieter, drifting. “Oh, I’ll holler (at Richmiller). No, I can’t.”

“It’s kind of like a slap in the face,” Foster said.

The pain isn’t going away anytime soon.

“They say time heals,” Sprenger said. “It might soothe it at times, but then something will trigger it.”

The ‘usuals’

Joe Williams sits at his table, waiting for his order of french fries to come out, on a recent winter afternoon, and he rattles off the number of people he normally sees in the afternoons he comes to the diner. He’s been coming to the diner for about 20 years or so. Bill Fanning, Williams’ pal at the table, has been a regular customer for 12 years.

Williams visits the diner three or four times a week. Fanning says he comes in when he’s not driving to the city, and he always comes back to “shoot the breeze.”

The food is a big reason to come in, too. The menu changes everyday, with different homemade dishes. Fanning favors the walleye, and Williams enjoys the hot beef and potatoes. Another customer praises the vegetable soup, and Fanning chimes in his agreement.

Foster calls people like Williams and Fanning the “usuals.” Sprenger calls them the “BS-ers.” One group comes regularly in the mornings, another in the afternoons.

“We settle a lot of the world’s problems here,” Fanning said.

“Or create (them),” Williams adds. They both laugh.

As Sprenger walks by to take care of a customer’s order, Fanning makes a harmless joke to her.

“She’s part of the gang,” he said.

For Sprenger, those regular faces become more like family.

“When they’re not here, you wonder where they’re at — if they’re sick, if something happened to them, if you don’t see them,” she said.

A long, hard haul

Sprenger said the process of renovating the bank building into a running restaurant was a challenge. A kitchen was added, the vault was removed and office walls were knocked down. She said a jackhammer was necessary to remove brick and concrete within the building.

Much of the deconstruction inside the building was done by Sprenger and whomever she could get to help. The only professional help she hired was for the plumbing and electrical work. For most of that time, she was putting in 16 to 18 hours a day — at the end, even more. Community members even put in hours to help move everything in.

“It was pretty difficult. We worked almost a year on it at night after hours,” she said. “Throughout the year, it was like, ‘Am I going to be able to do it?’ You know, you doubt yourself,” Sprenger said.

The space gives her a sturdier building and a little more space. The diner can hold about 40 more people now, she said.

“I’m really satisfied how it turned out,” she said. “(Lesa) would be too.”

Foster recognizes her mother’s accomplishment and hard work.

“It was a long, hard haul, but she did it,” Foster said. “I’m proud of her. I don’t think she realizes how proud (Lesa) should really be.”

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Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig, http://bit.ly/1fUe7xf

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Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, http://www.whig.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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