Vintage Cafe owners Karen Staniford, right, and her husband Jim in 2016 commemorated 40 years in business. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Vintage Cafe owners Karen Staniford, right, and her husband Jim in 2016 commemorated 40 years in business. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Karen Staniford, founder of storied Vintage Cafe, dies at 79

The cafe’s former owner was “feisty and independent, a force to be reckoned with when she put her mind to something.”

EVERETT — It was called The Alley and then Aaron’s before the name was changed to Vintage Cafe in 2002.

But since the restaurant’s founding 46 years ago, it has never changed hands. Same family. Three generations.

Karen Staniford, the cafe’s founder, died Aug. 31. She was 79. The family did not respond to interview requests, and the cause of death was not released.

The Vintage Cafe, the storied Everett restaurant and bar she founded, lives on.

Staniford was a single mom with a teenage daughter in 1976 when she took out a bank loan for $16,000. It felt like a fortune.

“That was like the national debt to me,” Staniford told The Daily Herald in 2016.

The space, which Staniford leased in the Hove Building at 1510 Hewitt Ave., had been a tavern called The Cave since the end of Prohibition.

She called her establishment The Alley and decorated the brick walls with photographs of Everett as a flourishing mill town.

“There was an opening into the alley. Back in those days you couldn’t have a front door directly into a cocktail lounge. We had to create kind of a hallway,” Staniford said in 2016.

When the doors opened, Staniford’s 14-year old daughter Lorrie Bunney was there busing tables.

Staniford would eventually teach Bunney how to cook, bartend and manage the restaurant.

Staniford, a 1960 graduate of Everett High School, was born Karen Cathleen Brown on Sept. 27, 1942, in Little Falls, Minnesota. She was raised in Everett.

Before opening her own restaurant, Staniford bartended at Pardee’s in Everett. Owner Bill Pardee was so impressed with her “spunk and skills” he promoted her to management and gave her the title, “best bartender in all of Everett,” the family wrote in an obituary in The Herald.

“Karen was feisty and independent, a force to be reckoned with when she put her mind to something,” her family wrote.

“That something would turn out to be opening her own restaurant and bar,” the family said.

In the 1970s, she was a pioneer in that respect: “This was a time when women were supposed to tend bar not own them,” the family wrote. “She fought hard to obtain her own liquor license and business loan.”

Staniford was reportedly one of the first women in Everett to get a liquor license.

Bunney credits Howard Bargreen, the third-generation owner of Bargreen’s Coffee Co., with helping “my mom get her license,” she told The Herald in 2019.

“We haven’t had any other coffee than Bargreen’s since then,” Bunney said.

Running a restaurant is no piece of cake.

“This is probably the toughest business there is. Anybody in the restaurant business can tell you that,” Staniford told The Herald in 2016.

A “Here we go again” sign is seen at the Vintage Cafe on Dec. 4, 2020, in Everett. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

A “Here we go again” sign is seen at the Vintage Cafe on Dec. 4, 2020, in Everett. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

Her words ring true. Most independent restaurants close within 12 months of opening. Those that remain continue for an average of five years, according to a 2019 Restaurant Broker’s study.

From the 1970s to the present, Staniford saw the city undergo a rollercoaster ride of changes.

“Back in the day, in 1976, downtown was still downtown,” Staniford said.

Shoppers had their choice of department stores: The Bon Marche, J.C. Penney and other retailers.

“This was a very vibrant area. Five years later, not so much. Everybody went to the mall,” Staniford said in 2016.

“The town kind of died. Everyone left by about 1984,” Bunney said.

The lunch and dinner crowd dwindled.

Time for a remake.

In 1983, Staniford married Jim Staniford and enlisted his help in revamping the restaurant.

Married 39 years, “they were the perfect pair” as Karen oversaw the day to day operations and Jim handled all the maintenance and remodeling over the years, the family said.

The Alley became Aaron’s, a night spot with pool tables and live music.

In 2000, the Stanifords and Bunney purchased the building. The historic structure was designed and built by architect Charles Hove in 1893, the same year the city of Everett incorporated.

They credit the restaurant’s longevity to repeat customers and the willingness, Jim Staniford has said, “to go with the flow.”

The Stanifords opened four businesses together: Amber’s Cafe North in 1988; Cafe Silverlake in 1991; Trendy’s Cafe by the Bay in 1995 and the Grand Leader Mercantile at 1502 Hewitt Ave. in 2018.

In the meantime, Everett’s downtown area underwent another transformation. The Everett Events Center, now Angel of the Winds Arena, opened in 2003. That same year, the Everett Silvertips Hockey Club skated into town.

Anticipating the city’s evolution, Staniford and Bunney closed Aaron’s in 2002. A few months later it re-opened as the Vintage Cafe, a family-friendly restaurant with a focus on dining and cocktails.

“Now it’s just down-home family cooking,” Bunney told The Herald in 2019.

In 2019, Staniford’s daughter Bunney turned over the keys to her daughter Amber Lang, who’d worked at the restaurant since she was a teenager.

Staniford is preceded in death by her father Otto Brown and mother Christina Brown. She’s survived by husband James Staniford; daughter Lorrie Bunnie; granddaughter Amber Lang (Brian); and great-grandsons Hayden, Hunter, Greysen and Griffen Lang.

“Karen did not want a funeral or service,” the family said. Instead she hoped “everyone would continue to visit the businesses she loved so much.”

Janice Podsada: 425-339-3097;; Twitter: @JanicePods.

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