May I take your order?

Published 8:00 pm Saturday, June 18, 2011

For six decades Darlene “Doo” Perry has been a fixture at the old Mill Restaurant, first bussing tables in 1951 and then waitresssing. - Eric Johnson/

Six decades after she began bussing tables, Darlene Perry is still having fun

The Old Mill Restaurant, a converted 19th century flour mill overlooking the Ramsey Mill Dam, has gone through a lot of changes since it opened in 1949.

The Austin landmark has changed hands four times, seen numerous renovations, menu changes and a steady increase in its wine and beer selection. But one constant has been a waitress by the name of Darlene “Doo” Perry.

In May of 1951, a 15-year-old Perry took her first job, bussing tables at The Old Mill, and soon became a waitress. Exactly six decades later, Perry is still waitressing at that same restaurant, and says she has loved every minute of it.

Email newsletter signup

“It’s one of those deals that when someone new buys it, they inherit me,” Perry joked. “But I really, truly enjoy it, and it’s a wonderful place to work, and it helps you keep young.”

Perry knew the original owner, Ray Stromer, well. She eventually married his nephew, Duane Perry, and the two started a family in Lansing. Duane and Doo moved to St. Cloud for about 10 years as Duane, who worked for Hormel Foods, was promoted. But the couple moved back in 1971 and Doo resumed her passion — waitressing.

“My husband always says, ‘Some people go there to work, but you go there to have fun,’” Perry said.

Barb Wagner, an Old Mill veteran herself, agrees with that sentiment.

“I’ve been working here with (Perry) for 25 years,” Wagner said.

“I thought I’d be here maybe three years, but I’ve had so much fun working with her over the years, and she really has taught me a lot; how to respect people, how to take care of people, how to be a good server, and how to have fun with it.”

Ask Perry anything about The Old Mill, and she can recite minute details such as menu changes, every structural improvement, and stories about most employees since the restaurant opened, all of whom she considers family.

“She’s like our mom. She’s everybody’s mom,” said Ann Forland, who has co-owned the restaurant with her husband, Dave, since 1988. Forland is also quick to point out that Perry knows more about the restaurant than she does.

“I still take instruction from her,” Forland said. “I still follow her lead. I wouldn’t be very smart if I didn’t.”

Forland said Perry loves the restaurant’s history, has a passion for serving, and loves her customers.

“Everything as a whole she loves about The Old Mill and it’s a pleasure to see her still come to work,” Forland said.

While Perry can’t imagine working anywhere else, she has a feeling the Forlands will be her last employers.

“Hopefully I’ll know when it’s time for me to go,” she said, adding that she’s not sure when that will be. “You couldn’t work somewhere this long if you didn’t enjoy it, and I really enjoy every aspect of it.”