For those who have ever dreamed of operating a charming, small town diner, you may be interested to know that the 1950s retro style theme restaurant, The Whistle Stop Classic Rock Café and Lounge in Norquay is up for sale. After celebrating 36 years in business on June 5, owner Donna Toffan is ready to hang up her poodle skirt and let down her pony tail to retire and enjoy family life – specifically stepping fully into the role of grandmother to her five young grandchildren.
Currently, Toffan is still a major part of operations at the restaurant with the support of many of her own family members. Working in various roles at The Whistle Stop are Toffan’s daughter, Jessica Effa; niece, Sara Hubenig; brother, Curtis Chernoff; daughter-in-law, Caroline Toffan, and close family friend, Florida Shelenko. Toffan’s son, Justin, contributed toward much of the latest renovations, building custom tables, bars, benches, and design elements in addition to his regular full-time work with his dad, Steven, on the family’s grain farm in the Norquay area.
The adventure began 41 years ago when a teen-aged Toffan started a business with her mother in her small Saskatchewan hometown of Norquay. For five years, Toffan and her mom, Patricia Chernoff ran the “The Dairy Dip” – a popular ice-cream parlour serving locals and tourists on the town’s Main Street. Today, over four decades later, the ice-cream shop is still going strong under new ownership and is currently located at a new home along Norquay’s Highway No. 49 called Corner Gas.
It was June 5, 1984 when Toffan first opened the doors of her family style diner, The Whistle Stop, to the public. Prior to it becoming a restaurant, the building had served the town as a CN railroad station. Despite the fact that the original building was in bad shape with holes in the floor and broken windows, Toffan could see potential.
Believing in her vision, her husband Steven, mom Patricia, and her uncle, Lloyd Davidson all pitched in to purchase the old station for $10,000 from the town. Dewald Construction was hired to transform the historic building into a restaurant over a six-month period and a grand opening was held in August of 1984. Speaking at the event was Norquay Mayor Al Anaka, Chamber President, Phyllis Dredge, and provincial ministers Klein and Dryden.
“It was an immediate success,” said Toffan. “Right away, we had a steady stream of customers – many of them being retired or semi-retired farmers. Earl Bernard, one of our regulars, would stop in every morning for many years. It was a pleasure to chat with him regularly over coffee – right up until he passed away recently at 92 years old. I miss him.”
With the instant success, Toffan admits she felt a little caught off-guard.
“It was scary at first. I had this vision of walking around with a pot of coffee and chatting with customers. But right away, I had to learn to cook. Eventually, I ended up going to school, earning my red seal chef papers and studying trends in food and hospitality. It turns out I’m a pretty decent cook and I actually really love it.”
In 2014, the café came to a crossroads. Toffan and her family had to make a decision to either do a major renovation or close down completely. The decision was made to move ahead with a massive investment for a complete makeover, and Toffan used the opportunity to upgrade with a 3,000 square foot expansion. At this time, the suggestion to fully embrace a 1950s retro-style diner came from Toffan’s best friend, Bev Yaschuk, a talented interior designer from Yorkton. The two friends pulled a number of all-nighters to turn their ambitious vision into reality during an intense six-week renovation period.
“We all worked so hard,” shared Toffan. “Everything was totally gutted. We replaced just about everything – two new furnaces, wiring, plumbing, coolers, freezers, and added a full lounge with a stage, an outdoor patio, custom seating and tables, and VLTs. People thought we were crazy. It did cost a lot. I don’t even want to say how much. But in the end, I don’t regret it. I love my hometown and in order for all of us to succeed, we all need to make investments. I wanted to ensure that locals and visitors had a great place to eat when they come to town to shop at other local business. I truly believe we all need to work together in order for this town to thrive.”
Toffan says that over the years, she has come to understand the importance of knowing what kind of food her regular customers like.
“I love watching food shows, keeping up with trends, and travelling to industry events. While I do have the training to cook what’s trending like sushi or lobster thermidor, I believe our success comes from sticking to what locals know and love – homemade burgers and fries, comfort food like meat and potatoes, and great coffee and pies.”
Although her uncle Lloyd and mom, Patricia have now passed away, Toffan honours their memory and contributions on the front of every menu in the café that lovingly shares its origin story.