Freeland Cafe celebrates 50 years of food and friendship

Freeland Cafe remains a popular spot for old friends to meet and take in some grub.

Five decades later, Freeland Cafe remains a popular spot for old friends to meet and take in some grub.

This weekend, the South Whidbey restaurant is commemorating its 50th birthday. Customers are invited to come by for enticing meal specials and a free slice of cake.

These days, things may look a little different than in 1974. For one, the jukebox has a touch screen and can be controlled through a smartphone app. The TVs in the bar where sports fans gather to watch the Mariners win – or lose – are flat screens. And an outdoor patio allows regulars to enjoy their omelet or burger and fries al fresco, while their pooches can chow down on dog treats made in house.

But what hasn’t changed are the loyal clientele and the friendly neighborhood atmosphere of the restaurant and bar, which was busy even on a recent rainy Tuesday afternoon. Some regulars, like Terry Thomas, said he has been coming to Freeland Cafe for 25 years. Others, like Adam Shults, found it to be a comfortable place after experiencing a stressful medical event in his life.

On June 1, Deb and Jeff Kennelly will also be celebrating five years of ownership of the island institution. In 2019, the Kennellys purchased the cafe from the three daughters of Bob and Virina Bryant, the original owners. They stayed true to classic menu favorites such as Loco Moco, Spam and eggs, and biscuits and gravy that Petite Bryant-Hunt, Dawn Swamp and Lani Bryant-Anderson served.

“The Portuguese sausage that they were buying, we’re buying,” Deb said. “We drive across the ferry just like Petite did when she was here and go to the same place and buy the same sausage.”

“We flip a coin. Loser goes,” Jeff joked.

Along the way, the couple incorporated some new menu items that have become a big hit, like the Reuben sandwich and specialty cocktails such as an Espresso Martini. Gluten-free options and the Impossible Burger are also new additions. Not too long ago, the old favorite shrimp and chips made a comeback.

The Washington residents moved to Whidbey for Freeland Cafe, which is the first restaurant they’ve ever owned.

“It was a place that you could bring your family,” Deb said. “It was good food, it was affordable food.”

The Kennellys have had an unusual tenure; nine months into their ownership, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and shut down indoor dining. Like any small business, they dealt with the challenges of the rising cost of goods and finding enough staff. Jeff himself stepped into the kitchen as the head cook for over a year.

Just a few months ago, the restaurant finally began opening seven days a week again, a feat which took four years to accomplish. Customers who have been missing the taste of El Corral – a beloved Mexican restaurant in the Bayview area that closed its doors last August – can find Manuel Marcial’s cooking on the menu three nights a week. This unique collaboration between the Freeland Cafe and El Corral owners started in December.

“We truly transition menus,” Deb said. “There are not burgers available during that time.”

According to a previous South Whidbey Record story, before 1974, Freeland Cafe was known as Kimball’s Cafe. Locals who have been coming into the restaurant for years have told the Kennellys many colorful stories.

“We always hear all the time that the bar used to be called the broom closet,” Deb said.

“That’s the password that means they’ve been around a while,” Jeff quipped.

Other longtime diners are surprised to hear that there is a bar tucked into the back of the restaurant.

On Saturday, the owners plan to go all out with a giant sheet cake.

When asked if Freeland Cafe will make it to 100, Deb replied, “I don’t know why it wouldn’t, honestly, because every year you just keep going with it. I think it’s beautiful. And I think we have done some amazing things to it.”

Eventually, they hope to pass that magic on to the next generation. If the right person comes along, the Kennellys have considered selling the business, which is listed for $1.6 million on

Freeland Cafe is located at 1642 E. Main St. and is open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day except Sunday, when opening time is 8 a.m.

Adam Shults catches up with friend Shannon Lawson over a burger at the Freeland Cafe. (Photo by David Welton)

Adam Shults catches up with friend Shannon Lawson over a burger at the Freeland Cafe. (Photo by David Welton)