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Queen of Polar King bids farewell

After decades of smiles, popular waitress moves on

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - After 30 years as a server at the Polar King restaurant on Southeast Powell Boulevard, Kim Kelly is finally hanging up her apron and moving on. For those who visit Polar King as much to encounter Kim Kelly’s smiling face and lightning-fast service as to fill up on eggs and hash browns, it’s likely no surprise the veteran server doesn’t seek out change for change’s sake.

However, to compensate for her tried-and-true nature, Kelly makes one annual adjustment.

“I try to do one thing every year that scares the crud out of me,” she said. “I’ve done bungee jumping, the slingshot at the state fair ...”

For Kelly, not to mention her numerous customers and fans at the Polar King, this year’s change is a doozy.

After more than 30 years of service, the 52 year old is leaving the venerable Powell Boulevard diner to take on an office-oriented job at Northwest Single Source distributorship in downtown Gresham.

“I figure after turning 50, and doing the things I’m supposed to do, my next 50 years should be time to make changes,” she said, “and do things that scare me.”

Sunday, Feb. 28, was Kelly’s last official day as a Polar King waitress. Her shift transformed into a surprise going-away bash at which customers shared stories, thank-yous and plenty of hugs to show how much they’ll miss their favorite waitress.

“I’m, like, an uber-bashful person,” she said, “so this (attention) is way out of my comfort zone.” OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Polar King waitress Kim Kelly takes a customers order during a recent morning shift at the restaurant's dining counter.

Steve Doane, owner of KTM motorcycles just up the street from Polar King, is among those who view Kelly’s departure as the end of a golden era.

“She is an incredibly effective person,” he says. “What most (waitresses) took two to work, she did it herself. She was a bundle of efficiency. She was fun to watch.”

Believe it or not, Kelly’s decision to be a waitress was prompted by her youthful desire to become an accountant.

“After I had my son, I went and got my (high school) GED and proceeded to get into accounting. I went college and did everything you did to be an accountant.”

However, when Kelly realized she would need to go into debt, to the tune of $10,000, to pay for schooling, she thought back to the Polar King, where she started washing dishes at 16 years old in 1980 and returned to wait tables seven years later.

“With just me and son, I had to make a choice,” she said. “I make more money here than I would going in debt. I had to be able to pay my rent and be the mom.”

The rest — like the 1952-vintage diner itself — is history.

Kelly endured changes in ownership — most recently when Jai Young Hong took over from Chuck and Gail Davis on Jan. 14 — and the onslaught of competing casual restaurants in Gresham since the 1980s, to symbolize what customers love about the homegrown diner experience.

“Her customers love her,” said Kelly’s sister Donna Miller, who, like Kelly, followed in the footsteps of their mother, Joyce Merrill, who worked at what was originally known as Maxwell’s Polar King. “They don’t come for the food. They come because of Kim. She’s sweet, she’s kind and she’s compassionate.”

Although she has been able to raise her son, Joshua, with the tips and wages she earned at Polar King, Kelly will mostly miss the camaraderie at the old joint.

“This feels like home to me,” she said. “More than anything, I’m going to miss my people. They told me I’ll have to come in an have breakfast with ‘em, so they can see me.”OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Kim Kelly, right, says that after 30 years at the Polar King, she basically serves her friends, as she calls diner regulars.