Saying Goodbye to One of Laguna Beach’s Shining Lights

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Former Cottage Restaurant owner Jennifer McCulley, 57, lost her battle with lymphoma on May 1. Courtesy of Brian Casler

By Justine Amodeo, Special to the Independent

When a former server from Laguna Beach’s Cottage Restaurant showed up at the San Clemente home Julie McCulley shared with her sister Jennifer, she was not surprised. He had seen on Facebook that Jennifer McCulley, 57, had passed away May 1 from lymphoma and wanted to help in whatever way he could. So even though he was out of work due to the current pandemic, he handed Julie a check for $50 to aid the family.

“He was so sad,” said Julie, who lived with her sister until her passing. “She touched so many people.”

In 2012, Jennifer was forced to shut down the Cottage because the separate owner of the property and its 1917-constructed building opted to lease it to Urth Caffe. But for 12 years, the Cottage—and all those who worked and dined there— was Jennifer’s family.

“All those employees, she hired anyone who came in and filled out an application, even with no experience, and trained them,” Julie McCulley said. “She would rehire people who had been fired and give them second and third chances, she was so generous. She spent every day there, visiting with people and talking to them on the patio. She would find out it was someone’s birthday and comp their meals. She just wanted to spread joy.”

Jennifer was also part of a program for three years to help Laguna Beach High School students with developmental disabilities. “She would teach them to fold napkins and set up silverware, sorting sugars, wiping menus and scooping butter. It was such a special group of kids,” Julie McCulley said.

Nicole Harris, a former Cottage employee who now lives in Texas, described the restaurant as “a Laguna Beach landmark where so many people came to enjoy not only great food, but a family-friendly atmosphere. That atmosphere was largely because of the incredibly kind and gracious owner, Jennifer.

Harris said her former boss had an infectious smile and treated every employee like family. In her spare-time, Jennifer enjoyed line dancing, gardening, and baking, relatives said.

“I think that positivity transferred to everyone who stepped into the historic dining room or onto the quaint patio,” Harris said. “Jennifer was someone who would have given you the shirt off her back, and asked if you needed a meal, too.”

After she closed the Cottage, Jennifer went back to catering but late last year she discovered she had B-Cell Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and started chemotherapy treatments to combat the cancer.

A GoFundMe page was created to help Jennifer with her medical bills as she went through chemotherapy and an ICU visit during her final days.

Last month, the GoFundMe page posted: “We know many of you have reached out to the McCulleys inquiring about how you can help and, in all honesty, this would be a great way. It is literally one of those ‘it takes a village’ scenarios. We are the village.”

The page had raised a little more than half of its $40,000 goal by Wednesday.

Jennifer’s passing was announced on the page with the same sentiment in which she had lived her lifer, “Jennifer McCulley would like us to let you know that as of May 1 her work here is done. She received a call, a sort of an offer you can’t refuse, for an appointment from which she will not be returning. This assignment comes with a huge sign-on bonus, a reunion with family and friends she has not seen in a long time.”

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