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Two North Idaho teachers have traded textbooks for cookbooks

click to enlarge A Dawn Breaker breakfast from the teacher-owned Le Peep Cafe in Coeur d\'Alene. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • A Dawn Breaker breakfast from the teacher-owned Le Peep Cafe in Coeur d\'Alene.

With nearly 60 years experience between them, longtime educators Maggie Kemp and Gretchen Surber are practicing what they’ve promoted to hundreds of students over the years: there’s always something new to learn. And for the past year, they’ve been enrolled in the school of life, learning about restaurant ownership from the ground up.

Last summer, after 20 years teaching reading, language arts, English as a second language and special education, Surber purchased Jimmy’s Down the Street with her husband, Mike, who retired from the Air Force. On the same day that Kemp welcomed her fourth-graders at Coeur d’Alene’s Winton Elementary, she and husband Dave opened Le Peep Cafe. Both women see parallels between their classroom experience and the restaurant business.

“Just like in the classroom,” says Surber, who also worked in school administration, “I try to build an atmosphere of kindness and encouragement so that [our employees] feel safe and are willing to grow and learn.”

Surber says training and fostering a team environment are essential to being able to expand their scratch-made menu and maintain a high level of quality — their pecan rolls were a hit in 2010 when Guy Fieri profiled Jimmy’s on Diners, Drive-Ins and Drives.

“It is my challenge as a teacher/co-worker/boss to guide the process of change and growth and help to create a restaurant that values everyone that enters,” says Surber.

Although Surber isn’t currently teaching, she has kept her certification current and hasn’t ruled out a return to the classroom. “When we decided to purchase the restaurant, we made the decision to make it our main focus.”

At Le Peep, Dave Kemp works full-time — his 40 years of industry experience includes Wendy’s and Starbucks — while Maggie pitches in whenever and wherever needed. Busing tables, running food, even cleanup. “There’s nothing we ask [staff] to do that I wouldn’t do,” she says, adding that as a fourth-grade teacher, she’s cleaned up plenty worse.

She draws on her teacher’s intuition during hiring, and sees her role as a mentor to staff, who gave her a vest adorned with the words “Mama Peep” (Dave is “Papa Peep”).

Kemp enjoys working with people on both sides of the counter to create a welcoming atmosphere that feels “like home.” The decor, which she chose, includes photographs of Northwest water scenes — very calming, she says — that play off Le Peep’s location along the Spokane River (in the Riverstone development).

At Jimmy’s, the atmosphere is also casual and homey, like the food. For breakfast, try the Southern Comfort Platter: two eggs, potato pancake, ham steak and either fried green tomatoes or okra, plus a slab of grilled cornbread with hints of jalapeno ($8.79). The Duke is a recent addition to the menu. It’s a bacon-infused hamburger with cheese, shaved ham, pulled pork, onion rings and deep-fried bacon, topped with their homemade Carolina-style BBQ sauce ($8.99).

Le Peep’s Colorado-based corporate office sets the general menu, although the Kemps are licensees (as opposed to a franchise), so they have some flexibility in their offerings. Standards include the Harvest Benedict with English muffin, two eggs, Hollandaise, sautéed spinach, cream cheese and veggies ($9.89), the Monte Cristo Crepes with raspberry dipping sauce ($8.79), as well as salads, burgers and sandwiches. They’ve added specials like Idaho Trout and Eggs ($9.49) and Tri-Tip Chimichanga ($8.29), with black beans, pico de gallo and the company’s Peasant Potatoes. They’ve also added beer and wine, plus appetizers like potato skins ($6.99) and spinach artichoke dip ($7.99), ideal for patio dining in warmer weather.

Both Le Peep and Jimmy’s are currently limited to breakfast and lunch. It’s important, says Kemp, that staff have evenings off to be with their own families.

It’s also important to give back to the community. Jimmy’s honors local law enforcement, firefighters and the military with a special “military corner,” while Le Peep has already participated in several education-oriented fundraisers. Last December, “Breakfast with Santa” raised money for the Dirne Community Health Center, while an upcoming “Breakfast with Bunny” will benefit Skyway Elementary. For her own school, says Kemp, there are plans for a benefit coinciding with Teacher Appreciation Week, starting May 7.

Kemp isn’t waiting until May to invite her students to Le Peep. “They see a totally different side of me,” she says.

If her students were to go into the food industry, says Kemp, she’d advise that it’s a lot of work but worth it. Surber agrees.

“We are open seven days a week and so far, Mike and I have had four days off since last June,” says Surber. “Every day new challenges come up and we grow and learn with each one.” 

Le Peep Cafe • 1884 W. Bellerive Ln. #101, Coeur d’Alene • Open Mon-Fri 6:30 am–2:30 pm, Sat-Sun 7 am-3 pm • www.lepeep.com • (208) 664-0404

Jimmy’s Down the Street • 1613 East Sherman Ave., Coeur d’Alene • Open daily 5:30 am-2:30 pm • (208) 765-3868 • www.jimmysdownthestreet.com.

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