Always busy

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Barbara Hunn – The matriarch of Keys Restaurants

Barbara Hunn left her veggie and rice mix, hopped off her stool at Keys Restaurant on Raymond Avenue in St. Paul to take an order-chow mein to go. She scurried to fill it, buttered and wrapped two pieces of bread, brought the customer her food and tallied the bill.

Five minutes later, Hunn was back in her seat, taking a few more bites and explaining her love for work, customers and family. “This restaurant has kinda become who I am,” said Hunn, who will soon be 70.

The petite woman who loves to ride a Harley Davidson in her free time is owner of Keys Restaurants, a family chain that has grown to seven establishments since the first one opened on Raymond at University avenues almost 35 years ago. Her four children-Carol, Jean, Celine and Roy-each own one of the Keys Restaurants. The businesses have stayed within the family.

The family feeling extends even further. Many of the people who work for Hunn have been with her for years. She has regular customers who have been coming in for decades.

Customers seem happy with food Hunn describes as “nothing fancy.” Many of the recipes are her own. Before opening the restaurant, she cooked for her kids, and used basic flavorings of salt, pepper, garlic and basil. That’s still what she uses.

Hunn has worked since age 14; her first job was as a cashier at a grocery store. She taught her children the same independence and work ethic, and they grew up working in the restaurants.

Hunn went to school for nursing and never dreamt she’d be a restaurateur. Her life as an entrepreneur started with Beverly Oien, a friend who asked if she wanted to buy the building on Raymond Avenue. They purchased it together, but Oien soon moved to Florida and left Hunn in charge. Hunn wanted to call the restaurant “Keys,” because “I’ll probably never get there [the Florida Keys],” she told Oien.

Hunn did, in fact, get to the Florida Keys, taking trips to visit Oien. Three months before Oien died, she moved back to Minnesota. “She died in my arms,” Hunn said.

Hunn’s last trip to the Keys in February 2007 was to sprinkle Oien’s ashes in the Atlantic where they used to take trips together. “She was my mentor, who I looked up to, who I wanted to be,” Hunn said. “She changed my entire life, my entire family’s life.”

Not only did Oien help Hunn buy her first business, she encouraged Hunn through her struggles of raising kids and failed marriages. “She gave me so many insights of not only who I am but how I could be,” Hunn said. “‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down,’ she’d always say. She was a woman’s woman.” Hunn doesn’t attribute her success solely to her dedicated friends and family. She really doesn’t think about it much, she said. But her work ethic is undoubtedly part of it: Hunn hates having nothing to do, and her motivation to keep busy drove her to success. “It’s an internal need to do something in this world,” she said. “Even if it’s coming in here and having happy customers.” And she reminds herself to stay humble.

A reality check came once when a regular customer with a mental disability kept taking all the crackers before leaving. “I went out there, the big boss, and told her this is a business and she can’t take the crackers … and I went on,” she said. The woman just said, “Who are you!”

Hunn was silent for a moment.

“It didn’t make one bit of difference to her,” Hunn said. “It was an awakening. [I thought] ‘Who do you think you are Barbara?’ We’re [all] equal …. If I talk about my success, I say a prayer and thank God for it, for good health and a good day.”