Breakfast at the Melrose Diner — eggs over medium, rye toast, freshly griddled pork roll, hash browns begging for hot sauce — still hits the spot. But the scenery has changed.
Meals are served on plastic plates under a catering tent in the parking lot. The behind-the-counter theater is gone, the dance of coffee pot-wielding waitresses put on an indefinite hold. The sound of clinking silverware or clattering dishes has been replaced by traffic whizzing past this wedge of West Passyunk Avenue.
Even before COVID-19, Philly’s diner scene was evolving. There have been transformations (the Continental, Silk City, Midtown IV) and losses: Midtown II, Little Pete’s, Oak Lane, two locations of the Trolley Car. Hours at many establishments have been scaled back as fast-casual chains and 24/7 convenience stores have flourished.
“Diners are not like they used to be,” says Michael Petrogiannis, who owns nine area diners, including the Melrose, the Country Club, Tiffany’s, and Warminster West.
Like all restaurants, diners have been forced to adapt, moving outdoors, beefing up takeout operations, struggling to break even however they can.
But will customers come to eat pancakes in a parking lot? How long can takeout club sandwiches and dinner specials sustain restaurants used to seating 100 customers at a time? And if they can’t make ends meet in a pandemic, will diners — a waning American institution — fade even faster?
Abdul Elkhouly started operating Coatesville’s Double D Diner in 2002, and for many years, business was encouraging. Customers would stand outside the Lincoln Highway establishment in the morning, waiting for it to open at 6 a.m.
“The business was good until what is happening now,” Elkhouly says. “All the business I have, all the good stuff I have for the last 20 years — gone.”
He spoke while sitting in the Double D, empty except for him and a lone server. They wait for customers who often don’t show, even though Pennsylvania’s reopening guidelines allow for 25% capacity indoors. Takeout sales only account for 15% or so of what the diners used to do.
“I don’t know if I’m going to survive or not, really,” Elkhouly says. “If it stays like this, it’s not worth it just to waste my time. Better just to go stay with my kids.”
Elkhouly tried setting up tables outside, but there weren’t many takers in the sweltering heat.
Nick Fifis, of Ponzio’s Diner in Cherry Hill, echoed the sentiment. “It’s 90 degrees outside. Drinking coffee and eating eggs in a parking lot next to Route 70, you know, it’s not like drinking a beer outside.”
Fifis is part of the second generation that runs Ponzio’s, a 56-year-old anchor of Cherry Hill’s dining scene. They’ve resisted making a significant investment in outdoor dining so far, but Fifis acknowledges they might have to, especially after Gov. Phil Murphy postponed indoor dining indefinitely.
For now, Ponzio’s is open only for takeout. Loyal customers have been ordering chicken Maryann, eggplant Parmesan, peach cream pie, and other baked goods.
But with a $10,000-a-month electric bill (at baseline), 110 employees, and vendors to pay, Fifis is holding out hope Ponzio’s will welcome people back inside this year.
“When you see a family business for 56 years in a situation like this, it’s heartbreaking,” Fifis says. “It’s like watching your business on fire, and it’s surrounded by firefighters with hoses in their hands, and you’re just waiting for them to spray the water.”
Diners are known for 24-hour service, modest prices, and expansive menus that offer something for everyone. But in recent decades, competitors in other categories — fast-casual chains like Panera Bread and Chipotle, retailers from Wawa and Wegmans offering grab-and-go food — have been horning in on the market, peeling away customers at lunch and dinner.
That means diners increasingly rely on breakfast as a profit-driver. “And with breakfast, you need to do high volume in order to make good money,” Fifis says. “You’ve got to be able to turn tables quickly.”
But those two pillars of diner profits — breakfast and volume — have been knocked down by the pandemic, says Rick Aurite, president of the Delaware Valley Purchasing Group, a nonprofit cooperative with 1,300 restaurant members in six states, many of them diners.
“You’re not going to get your eggs over light in a foam container,” Aurite says. “It’s a double whammy because [breakfast] doesn’t travel well, and that’s one of their highest-volume meal segments.”
Some diners were designed to seat hundreds of customers or more. In such cases, “they’re just so big of an establishment, it’s hard to to cover overhead cost with just takeout or just one meal segment,” Aurite says.
Fifis thinks Ponzio’s could succeed if indoor dining returned; at 25% capacity, the 420-seat restaurant could host 125 customers at once. But smaller diners operating at that rate would likely struggle.
“Nobody builds a building that’s 5,000 square feet and then says, ‘OK, we’re only going to put 25 tables in,‘” says Nancy Morozin, the general manager of the Dining Car in Northeast Philadelphia.
Morozin took over for her father, Joe, who opened the iconic Frankford Avenue diner in 1961. She’s determined to keep the diner going. “Sixty years in business,” she says, “I can’t imagine anything you’re going to put in front of me is going to stop me.”
Limited to outdoor dining by Philadelphia’s COVID regulations, she transformed the Dining Car’s parking lot with planters, red tents, occasional live music, even a socially distanced watercolor painting class.
“We zhushed up that parking lot as much as you can zhush up a parking lot,” Morozin says. “When it’s beautiful out, let me tell you, it is beautiful.”
“The heart and soul of a diner is to follow what the customers want,” she says.
Regulars keep diners running, says Aurite. They come in four days a week or more and have opinions on the food, the service, even the color of the paint. Their expectations are part of the reason diners keep long hours and novel-sized menus.
But another reason is legacy. Second-generation owners like Fifis and Morozin are upholding traditions.
In a way, so is Petrogiannis, who immigrated to the U.S. from Greece, got into the diner business in 1980 as a dishwasher, and went on to amass an empire by buying diners from second- or third-generation owners who didn’t want the same kind of lifestyle as their parents. He’s made changes, but his diners still bear all the hallmarks of a diner.
“I’m old-fashioned,” Petrogiannis says.
Aurite says he can count on two hands the number of new diners that have opened in the area in the past five years. Petrogiannis says one hand would suffice.
If diners are winnowed out by coronavirus, will new owners step up to revive them later? Or are they too outmoded?
Paul Markert doesn’t think so. He and his business partner, Scott Edwards, bought Doylestown’s Cross Keys Diner in 2008. Markert says he and Edwards, who had cooked together at fine-dining restaurants in Bucks County, had always wanted to own a restaurant. When the opportunity to take over the Cross Keys presented itself, he didn’t have any hesitation.
“This was my favorite restaurant,” he says. “I had my first date with my wife here. My sister used to work here.”
Markert and Edwards still do all the cooking, splitting weekdays and tag-teaming weekends, turning out eggs Benedicts and turkey specials. The pandemic has made service unpredictable, which makes the job harder, but customers are still coming. On a recent Monday, between its limited indoor and outdoor seating, the diner served 190 customers between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m.
The suggestion that diners are dated comes as a surprise to him: “I never thought — no one ever said that. I don’t — is it?” he asks.
Maybe it’s a city thing, I offer, explaining what my reporting has indicated: that young kids aren’t coming in as much, that customers are going elsewhere for lunch and dinner.
“I can see that,” Markert says. “But I do think that there are more people than you think there are that want to go to a diner, that want that personable, mom-and-pop kind of situation.”
He isn’t speaking as an owner, he explains, but as a fan of that sort of place himself. “I do like these places, and I seek them out,” he says.
There may be hope for diners yet.