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Crab Cracker owner and Kirkland businesswoman Shirley Day dies at 73
Many people who have frequented The Crab Cracker restaurant over the past 29 years have gone for more than just seafood.
In fact, many folks would look for Shirley Day’s vehicle in the parking lot to ensure they could catch her for lunch or dinner.
“She worked every single day - you’d see her big gold car out in front of the restaurant and you’d know she was at work,” said Kirkland Councilwoman Penny Sweet, who was good friends with Day. “That’s what you would look for.”
Day, who owned the restaurant with her husband Robin and was a long-time businesswoman, passed away of breast cancer on Tuesday at the Evergreen Hospice Center, surrounded by her family. She was 73 years old.
A Tacoma native, Day graduated from Stadium High School in 1958 and later become a skilled restauranteur, opening nine restaurants throughout her lifetime. This included the Cowboy Steakhouse that was open in Kirkland’s Totem Lake neighborhood for 13 years.
But none of those ventures were as successful or as dear to her heart as The Crab Cracker.
Day moved to the Juanita neighborhood in 1978 and later met her husband Robin. The couple bought The Crab Cracker - originally called Franco’s Crab Cooker - in 1984 when the business was struggling and facing bankruptcy.
“When we first opened The Crab Cracker, everyone thought we were nuts,” said Day’s son, Todd Jones, who also works in various capacities at the restaurant. “Kirkland was a dead town.”
But Day was known for working from dusk until dawn, handling day-to-day operations, business finances and would often come out of the office to work the front desk and sit down and chat with friends. She was most proud that she made the business successful, Jones noted.
“Mom was pretty notorious for working every single day of the week,” he said. “At 70, she slowed down to working only 10 hours per day.”
Jones worked alongside his mother at The Crab Cracker every day since 1989. One of his fondest memories is sitting with his mother at a table in the restaurant and chatting every morning before it opened. They would talk about everything, from restaurant challenges and their catering business, to managing employees.
Jones said his mom had many regulars who came in to see her, from city dignitaries and good friends, to former Seahawks players, including defensive end Jacob Green.
She also served dinner to the likes of Microsoft Corp. co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen and The Walt Disney Company former CEO Michael Eisner, who was given his own private menu.
Along with her business savvy, Jones said Day also had a keen eye for detail. So much so that one night his mom recognized a man sitting at a table in her restaurant.
But he wasn’t a regular.
He was a wanted criminal who was featured on America’s Most Wanted TV show that she had watched the night before. Day called the police, who surrounded the back door and arrested the man, Jones recalled, laughing.
Day was also very involved in Kirkland’s business community as a Greater Kirkland Chamber of Commerce member, who won the A. Duane Lund Chamber Member of the Year Award in 2010. She was also the chamber representative to the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee board, as well as one of the founders and former president of the Kirkland Performance Center.
In the KPC’s early days, Day helped come up with a strategy of how to make the organization more successful.
“I told her your not making many friends over there because she dropped the hatchet and told them to save every dollar,” Jones laughed. “That’s how she ran business here too.”
He said other local business owners also looked to her at how she ran business.
“Of course, her answer was always the same - every dollar counts,” said Jones.
But beyond her positions and accolades, Day was an advocate for businesses because she cared about the Kirkland community, said Sweet.
“She worked so many hours for the business community - she was just fundamental,” said Sweet, whose business The Grape Choice was housed in the Crab Cracker building for eight years before the wine shop moved. “When I went to see her at hospice, she wanted to sit down and talk about the city and talk about things. She really wanted to know how it was going.”
While Day was a “quiet voice” behind things, she never hesitated to give feedback and “was willing to say hard things,” said Sweet. “Those are the things I really appreciated about her. You could always count on Shirley to be straight with you.”
Springer recalled having a glass of wine at The Crab Cracker on one occasion. Day poured him a large glass of wine and Springer told her that she pours “the biggest dang wine glass I’ve ever seen.”
Day didn’t care. She told Springer she wasn’t going to change the way she did things, he said.
“Shirley Day did not suffer fools,” said Springer. “She was a very tough businesswoman.”
Day was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago. After some chemotherapy, she went into remission for a couple years, but the cancer came back. Day stopped treatment in May as her cancer became too aggressive and by July, her battle with breast cancer prevented her from working at the restaurant.
During that time, Kirkland resident Sue Contreras and Sweet organized nearly 30 volunteers who weeded the flower boxes at the restaurant and did other landscaping work on a Sunday afternoon.
“There’s a quote by Dr. Suess: ‘Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,’” said Contreras. “I feel that way about Shirley. I’m glad she was a part of my life. She was a real presence and a real present to Kirkland.”
Shirley’s passing also coincides with the end of an era for The Crab Cracker.
Jones said the restaurant’s lease is up in January 2014, when The Crab Cracker will close its doors, most likely for good. He said it would be too expensive to make the renovations needed to keep the restaurant in business.
Though he did say whether The Crab Cracker moves or not is “still open” if he finds the right location.
He said he talked about the restaurant’s closing with his mom quite often.
“It’s bittersweet - we’ve had a good run here,” said Jones. “We look at this restaurant as a living, breathing memorial of mom. It was her whole life.”
Day’s family will hold a public memorial service for her in Kirkland some time after the New Year.
Day is survived by her husband of nearly 32 years, Robin; siblings Kenny and Dennis Mattson; daughter Julie and husband Cameron Clark; son Greg and wife Tammie Jones; son Todd and wife Lynn Jones; daughter Wendy and husband Pete Kelly; Karsten and Christie Day-White and 10 grandchildren.