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Parting with Poppio's

Jan Bentley, who owned the former Pacific Avenue eatery for 35 years, has put the restaurant's artifacts to good use
by: Mateusz Perkowski of the NewsTimes,

Over the 35 years of Poppio's existence, owner Jan Bentley amassed a collection of friends and memories that will last a lifetime. A lot of the items she acquired while working at the now-defunct Forest Grove restaurant, however, she wasn't able to keep.

After Poppio's closed more than a year ago, there was no longer room in Bentley's life for the sports trophies, books, pictures, maps and other objects that adorned the interior of the building at 2617 Pacific Ave.

'I don't have the space,' she said.

Instead of heaving the assortment of decorations into the dumpster, Bentley decided to find a suitable home for each of them. She recruited an acquaintance to help track down members of the soccer, baseball, bowling and Special Olympics teams whose photos were featured on the establishment's walls.

After all, many of the tykes in the pictures are grown up now and have kids of their own. 'I thought it would mean more to the families,' Bentley said.

When nobody wanted the dozens of trophies that were once proudly showcased on shelves within the restaurant, Bentley simply left a few on the curb beside a sign that read: 'Free.' Soon, the handful of awards vanished - along with more than 20 others she had left behind the building.

'I bet some kid has his whole dorm room decorated in trophies,' Bentley said, drawing a connection between their quick disappearance and the start of the school year.

Other items will serve a more useful purpose. Books were donated to the Gaston Library, while remaining dishware will be given to students at Pacific University. Several prints of historic Forest Grove homes that once hung inside Poppio's were sold to Barb Smith, a member of the Friends of Historic Forest Grove.

'If we have a museum, that's where they'll go,' Smith said.

Parting with the artifacts of her decades-long sojourn as a restaurateur has been a bittersweet experience for Bentley, who opened the restaurant with her then-husband Brent in 1971. Thinking back on the years spent running Poppio's, she has to weigh the fond memories of friendly regulars against the backbreaking labor of keeping them fed and happy.

'I just knew my body couldn't take it,' said Bentley, who stopped operating the restaurant largely due to her ailing back and hip.

Faithful Poppio's customers may dream of a grand re-opening, but their wishes are not likely to come true. These days, Bentley is content to indulge her passion for gardening and yard work, and when she wants to take a trip down memory lane, she has plenty of anecdotes to stir up nostalgia.

For example, the name of the restaurant was inspired by an affectionate term the children of Bentley's friends had for their grandfather. Another bit of trivia is that the building initially housed a Jehovah's Witness congregation. Even though the church was remodeled into a restaurant, former worshippers didn't regard the transformation as blasphemous.

'We had a lot of their people come in as customers,' remembered Bentley.

Upon opening, the restaurant was an instant hit. The tasty food surely had something to do with it, but Bentley acknowledges their lack of competition was another strong factor in Poppio's success.

'Neither of us had any experience, but this town had no restaurants,' she said. 'If you wanted to go out and eat, you had to go to Portland.'

Initially, Poppio's only served pizza, but demand from Forest Grove residents caused the menu to expand to include sandwiches, seafood, salads and soups. Before long, the eatery's popularity exploded. Traffic on nights after high-school football games was so heavy that Poppio's often had standing room only.

'The noise level was unbelievable,' Bentley said, recalling the boisterous crowds of teenagers. 'We had to hire a bouncer.'

The restaurant saw plenty of employees come and go, such as the young man who attempted to pick the mold out of their homemade blue cheese dressing, but Poppio's was essentially a family affair. In the early years, Bentley's mother Ethel helped formulate many of the restaurant's popular recipes - her skills as a bartender, however, left much to be desired.

'I never could get her trained not to put to ice in the beer,' Bentley said.

Brent and Jan Bentley's daughters - Charlotte, Yvonne, and Brenda - were also indoctrinated into the food-service industry. All three learned a great deal during their years at Poppio's.

'My daughters grew up in the restaurant and they're all fantastic cooks,' Bentley said. 'In fact, one of my daughters went on to cooking school.'

Yvonne, the middle sister, eventually took over ownership of Poppio's for the last four years of its existence.

Unfortunately, foot and leg problems, as well as a divorce from her husband, forced her to give up the restaurant. Her mother tried to keep things going for about a month, but realized she couldn't keep up.

'It's hard work. I don't think a lot of people realize how hard restaurant work is,' Bentley said, admitting she still longs for the personal interactions the arduous toil involved. 'To this day, I miss the customers. I miss the contacts with people.'

Her clientele seems to feel the same way. In the year that the restaurant has stood unused, many former customers hold out hope that their favorite diner will someday come back to life.

'I have people stop me every week and ask, 'When are you going to reopen Poppio's?'' Bentley said.