Story and Photos by Chris Herndon
Walk into Brails on a weekend and one will find college students chowing down delicious diner- style food. Most will probably be wearing sunglasses and sweatpants, because getting dressed can be difficult after a night on the town. The smell of bacon and coffee fills the air as they down glasses of water trying to rehydrate and work off their hangovers from parties the night before.
Brails, a restaurant located on corner of 17th and Willamette, serves its patrons more than just good food. Along with amazing food, being voted best hangover breakfast in Eugene 10 years running, Brails’ owner Joy Knudtson, 57, greets many students by name, making them feel at home.
First and foremost, Knudtson focuses on the quality of the food, as that, in her opinion, is the most important part of a restaurant. Second to her mouthwatering food, Joy believes in taking care of customers and providing them with a family like atmosphere. A lot of students call her “umma,” which is Korean for mom. She calls most returning customers by name and jokes around with anyone who will entertain the idea. The place is cozy and smells amazing and offers customers a place to take a break from life’s problems. For the time they are at Brails it’s just fun and good food.
The kitchen turns out top quality comfort food. Hash browns are golden brown and crisp. The eggs are cooked to perfection and the pancakes are nice and fluffy, with butter and maple syrup running over the stacks. The burgers and fries around lunch time are on another level, coming fresh off the flat iron stove in the back.
Ian Gray, a server and manager of Brails, has been there for 12 years. He says one of the customer’s favorite dishes is “Joy’s special”— a large order of hash browns with ham, tomatoes, onion, green peppers, Swiss and cheddar cheeses, covered with country gravy. The hangover special is also a popular dish. Joy tells her cooks to “please cook with love.” She runs her business from the heart and puts everything she has into making it successful.
The diner has been around in some form or the other since the 50s. Originally, it was much smaller than it is today. Since Knudtson bought Brails over a decade ago, she has expanded it greatly. Now the restaurant seems like it’s never ending, and offers a banquet room for large gatherings.
Knudtson slowly but surely improved the look of Brails on the inside with new paint, booths and decor, making it an inviting space for customers. She’s also redone the outside of Brails. The red paint and big sign atop the restaurant stand out as much as the food cooked within.
Knudtson came to the United States from Korea when she was 19 years old. After going through a variety of careers and living all along the west coast, Knudtson finally settled in Vancouver, Washington, managing a restaurant. Knudtson’s sister, the previous owner of Brails, became sick and lacked the energy to run the restaurant. When Knudtson got a call from her sister asking for help with the restaurant, she dropped everything and moved to Eugene, leaving the rest of her family behind. She stayed with her sister for a couple of months and eventually bought Brails. She started changing the business, slowly improving it every step of the way, eventually purchasing the laundry mat next to Brails and expanding the restaurant.
“Business was okay at first.” Knudston said. “I never think that I am going to make a whole bunch of money. I never have. I do the business to survive and I love to come here and talk to people and smile.”
In the beginning, Knudston worked from early in the morning until late into the night every day. “I decided 3 months later that you have to live your life first.” Lack of business in the evening, along with wanting more family time, factored into her decision to keep Brails open from 7am until only 3pm.
At Brails, Knudston says her major focus is on the regulars, as they are the majority of her business, especially during the week. Gray knows what the regulars order every time and Knudston knows the names of almost everyone that has walked through the doors more than once.
Every Monday through Friday a group of locals continue a tradition of decades at a table in the back of Brails. Mike Fox, 67, along with Gary Pierpoint, 75, and Dennis Surmon, 68, all of Eugene, are regulars at the so called “Round Table.” The group started meeting decades ago, originally at a place called the Town Club of Eugene, and was a place that anyone could go and eat with people so they didn’t eat alone. The people who normally ate there were business owners and a host of other professions.
Pierpoint talked about the atmosphere of Brails saying, “It’s very friendly. They know your name. I won’t say it’s like cheers, but we banter back and forth with Joy every day. We play a game with coffee every day and sometimes she joins in.” Fox chimed in, “If it didn’t feel like home we wouldn’t be here.” He later added, “If we didn’t feel welcome we’d be someplace else. We kid them and they kid us, so it’s fun.”
Knudston says the thing that makes her the happiest about working at Brails is when former students come back to Eugene and go out of their way to come by, eat, and say hi.
“I try to treat the students like they are my kids.” Maybe it’s the motherly relationship Knudston maintains with her customers that keeps them coming back in troves. Almost any day of the week the restaurant is packed, with a line outside waiting to get in.