Let them eat Cake: Bunnie Powers is famous for her coconut cake but loved for her humble generosity

0009On a weekday lunch hour, the Canadian Honker restaurant buzzes with customers. Forks clink on plates, coffee gurgles into cups and dozens of simultaneous conversations create a low hum. As in many restaurants, servers deliver salads and sandwiches, a selection of wraps and an assortment of desserts.

    But the Canadian Honker serves one thing that no other restaurant does: Bunnie’s Coconut Cake. And on this Wednesday, Bunnie Powers herself is hopping from table to table, chatting with patrons.

    “My job is to walk around and talk to people. And I get paid for it,” she smiles. “Best of both worlds.”

    Bunnie, 82, is the matriarch of the Powers family, which spans four generations. She is the mother of five, grandmother of 16 and great-grandmother of six. Her sons, Joe and Cris, own Canadian Honker, and she has the rights to the most recognized item on the menu.

The famous cake

Bunnie has been involved in the restaurant since it opened in 1984, and it has been a family operation from the start.

    Her husband got the cake recipe from a coworker. “When we were getting restaurant recipes together, I made it one afternoon and Joe said, ‘You know Ma, I think this is gonna go.’”

    And go it did. To date, they have sold more than a million pieces of that moist, white cake topped with fluffy frosting and shredded coconut. And now Bunnie is synonymous with cake. “I just can’t get over [how popular it is],” she says.

    Though they have altered the recipe a bit, she won’t share it. “Otherwise people will be making it and not coming in here.”

Busy as a Bunnie

But it’s not all about cake for Bunnie. It’s not even all about the restaurant. It’s about staying healthy and active and focusing on family and community.

    “Since my husband died, this is real therapy for me to be here [at the restaurant], and I really enjoy it. But I do a lot outside of here.”

    A typical week looks like this: On Mondays she plays bridge. On Tuesdays she volunteers at the St. Marys gift shop. On Wednesdays she greets guests at Canadian Honker. Thursday is her “free day” for appointments. Friday finds her back at the restaurant.

    In addition, she has volunteered with and been president of the St. Marys Hospital Auxiliary: “You learn a lot of what’s going on in that hospital. I have never had a volunteer job I’ve loved so much.”

    She exercises regularly: “I can go from Charter House to the [Dan Abraham] Healthy Living Center. I usually row or ride a bike, do stationary weights or treadmill. I mix it up.”

    When she became a widow, she joined a women’s group: “Women express their feelings so easily,” she says. “I really enjoy that group.”

    Bunnie goes to Mass every morning, and she has been in a Bible study for almost 20 years. “That has really changed my life. God has blessed me by studying His word. I read a lot of religious books. Right now I’m reading Mother Teresa’s book on Calcutta.”

    And she has great girlfriends who go to movies and out to eat with her often.

    This commitment to volunteer organizations, social groups and her health is a conscious choice that Bunnie has learned to make as she has grown older. “When I was younger I would take jobs and wouldn’t follow through. I’d get tired of them after a couple times and I’d quit. I’ve made up my mind now that I’m older: think it over before you say yes and decide if you want this or not, but you have to follow it through. And that’s what I’ve done.”

Love story

Bunnie can’t describe any part of her life without mentioning her husband. “I was married to the same man for 46 years. He was the love of my life.”

    Originally from Wabasha, Bunnie came to Rochester in 1949 after high school. She worked at Mayo Clinic and met her future husband, Jim Powers, at a party.

    “He sat and insulted me all night. That’s what he did if he liked you,” she says. “When he got back from Korea, I ran into him and he was so nice to me. I thought ‘You know, you’re not bad.’ Before I knew it, he was asking me out.” Two years later, they were married.

    Jim was on the city council for 14 years, and Bunnie proudly talks about their time together. “I was very involved in politics with him. I went out and pounded on doors. Oh, we had a ball.”

The Powers of family

Bunnie cooked meals for 18 years while she was home with her children. Every morning, Jim had poached egg on toast and half a grapefruit. “I’ll never forget that,” she laughs.

    The family ate dinner together every night. Bunnie volunteered at Holmes School. The boys played hockey, and the girls swam. They went camping and vacationed “up north.”

    Though the family was close, being home with her children for 18 years wore on this involved mother. “You know, raising five teenagers is really hard. I went to the doctor when they were all teenagers and he said, ‘Mrs. Powers, how are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’ve got five teenagers. They’re driving me crazy.’ He said, ‘You’re gonna be all right.’ And I am. I’m very proud of them now.”

    She is delighted with what her kids have accomplished, and now another generation is feeling her influence. “What’s really been great is working with my grandson.” Nick is the manager of the Canadian Honker. “Oh he’s a dear man,” she smiles. “I’m a little partial.”

    Nick and Bunnie share a hug every day. “The fact that I get to work with my grandmother and see her as often as I do, I am so grateful for that,” says Nick. He and his wife had their first baby in March. “To watch how devoted she is to her faith really inspires me to live in God’s vision,” he says. “She is the nicest woman I have ever met and I am truly blessed to have her in my life. My daughter will have her values instilled in her from the beginning.”

    For this kind of family, Bunnie is grateful. “I just tell the Lord, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”

Bright Spot

Bunnie enjoys meeting and greeting in the restaurant across the street from the world-famous medical center. “I’ve had so much fun and met so many wonderful people.”

    Some come back just to see her. “After my husband died, a lady came in from Quincy, Ill. We’d have gin and tonics together and go for rides and so forth.” Once, Bunnie drove to Illinois to visit her friend. “I drove by myself—I had a new car,” she says with the authority of her years. “It made the kids a little nervous, but that was 10 years ago.”

    But not all the tales are happy. “People, when they’re hurting, will tell you a story if you just lend an ear. So I hear a lot of stories.”

    She remembers many of them and says it is important just to be there for people that need to talk. “Years ago a lady came in and she was really crying. She had been here six months and said, ‘I’m so tired. I’m so terribly tired.’ Her husband had cancer. You can sort of sense after a while when people are hurting.”

    But she doesn’t mind the listening. “You know, when you listen to people you really learn a lot.”

    Through Bunnie’s example, Nick has learned that running a restaurant in Rochester isn’t just about serving great food. “A lot of people across the street are going through some very difficult times in their lives, and [we] have the opportunity to take time to listen and try to bring a bright spot to their day.”

Icing on the cake

Whether she’s on the job or not, Bunnie loves her public relations position for the Canadian Honker. “A long time ago, I was coming across Second Street and a couple came up behind me and said, ‘Do you know anything about that Honker? What’s it like? Is it good?’  I said, ‘Oh very good. And by the way, my kids own it.’”

    The couple went in and had dinner, and she asked them afterward, “Well how was it?” Excellent, they said. “Well, now you have to try the coconut cake.”

    And they did.

Bunny Fun Facts

• Her son Joe gave her a bunny pin with ruby eyes and pearl cottontail for Christmas almost 20 years ago. She has worn it every day since.

• Bunnie is short for Bernice. She’s had the nickname all her life.

• “There’s a lady who drives down from Minneapolis about once a month just to get my cake.”

• “One time I worked at McDonald’s. This is when I was bored; I hadn’t worked for 18 years. I drove by there one day and they had a sign in the window. …They hired me on the spot. I had the best time because I was 40-something and the [other employees] were in high school and they all confided in me.”

• One day she was challenged with a Bunnie cake of a different recipe and was asked if she could tell the difference. “Well that one’s yellow. Mine is white. Don’t you dare change that recipe.”

• Her daughter named the Canadian Honker restaurant. “We were trying to come up with a name, and I said, ‘For gosh sakes, we aren’t gonna call it Joe’s Place.’”

• She has dyslexia. “There’s a lot more people with dyslexia than you’d think. And a lot of people keep it hidden. It would do a lot of good if they talked about it.”

Ellington Miller Starks is a freelance writer and editor in Rochester.