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Regulars struggle with loss of beloved Newton Diner

Until the fire in September, the chimney sweep, the Vietnam vet with the eye patch, and the rest of the gang all knew where they would be on Monday mornings. Now many feel lost.

Tina Brown greets a former Newton Diner customer arriving for breakfast at her new workplace, the Metro Diner in Brooklawn. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)
Tina Brown greets a former Newton Diner customer arriving for breakfast at her new workplace, the Metro Diner in Brooklawn. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)Read more

Until the fire in September, the chimney sweep, the Vietnam vet with the eye patch, and the rest of the gang all knew where they would be on Monday mornings.

Minutes before 6 a.m., waitress Tina Brown would open the door to the Newton Diner on the White Horse Pike in Haddon Township.

It was like comedy hour, Brown said. One regular would hide by the pies and pastries, and playfully make sure the coast was clear before taking his spot at the 20-seat counter.

The chimney sweep would ask if she was ever going to take his breakfast order.

"No," Brown would quip. "You'll eat when I tell you you can eat."

His usual: Two poached eggs in a cup. Dry rye toast. Grits. Apple sauce with a fat strawberry on top.

Kenneth N. "Patch" Scott, 62, a former welder also known as "the pirate" to kids for the eye covering he acquired after being hit by a car, would wait until Brown was busy, then order coffee. And she would tell him to wait some more.

"We lived for Monday mornings," said Brown, of Barrington.

The diner was their community. Faithfuls took the same counter seats every morning - sometimes evenings, too. They befriended the employees and each other.

The Newton's owners - Eleanor and Dennis Hondros and Eleanor's brother - paid staff members' bills in emergencies and kept Brown on salary when she became seriously ill.

All that ended on Sept. 10, when a two-alarm blaze tore through the Newton. The fire has scattered the restaurant's customers and staff, whose casual friendships have mostly fallen away as they seek replacements for their special spot.

"It was one of those unique things, kind of like Cheers. You can't invent it," said George Wise, 65, who owns a jewelry business with his wife in Haddon Heights, where they also live.

"Some places just happen, and happen to be fun and happen to be nice," said Wise, who would stop in at least three times a week. "I'm going to miss it."

Brown, 65, has settled in at the Metro Diner in Brooklawn. A fellow waitress landed at the Black Horse Diner in Mount Ephraim. Others also have found jobs, sometimes taking their old customers with them.

The vacant property, about a half-acre, is encircled by a fence. The owners wanted to rebuild, but the cost of construction was too much in the current economy. A for-sale sign went up this month, Eleanor Hondros said.

"We feel empty, like that lot over there. Our life is put on hold," said Hondros, 57, whose spouse emigrated from Greece. "My husband, that's all he ever knew."

They couldn't bear to watch the start of demolition, she said. At first, after the building was leveled, she avoided driving by with her husband.

Had it not been for a diner, the Bellmawr couple might never have met. Their romance began in 1973 at what is now the Collingswood Diner. Dennis was a cook. Eleanor was a waitress. They were 19 years old.

The love affair blossomed at the Newton, where they would stop in to eat when it was the Oaklyn Diner. They married in 1975. She went to nursing school and years later opened a Gloucester City day care for children with special needs. He worked his way up in the restaurant business.

Their son became a chef at the Newton and, in 2007, his parents, who were grandparents of two, bought the place and kept its name.

The Hondroses juggled schedules and personalities, poured coffee, and cleaned tables.

"You just felt welcome there," said James Tereshenko, 74, the Audubon resident who would hide by the baked goods.

The fire, which broke around 4:45 a.m., was the result of a malfunctioning kitchen appliance, said Camden County Deputy Chief Fire Marshal Paul C. Sandrock, who declined to give further details. He said the building had a smoke alarm that sounded in the building but did not summon the Fire Department.

"I just feel so sorry that it all happened," Hondros said. "We loved our employees. We loved our customers."

The Hondroses would arrive around 6 a.m. and put in 15 to 16 hours a day, Brown said.

"It was a life for them. It was a life for all us," she said.

Tereshenko was among a group of customers who migrated to the Newton from the old Weber's Diner in the 1990s.

"I would go [to the Newton] and drink water just to be with those people . . . to see this one and that one," he recalled. It was "a happy little club with no membership required."

When a customer, a roofer, got hurt in a car accident, Tereshenko created a get-well card on his computer that showed a guy climbing a roof, he said. Waitresses and customers signed the card.

Wise made Brown a sign by stapling a six-inch piece of cardboard to a paint stirrer. She was selective about whom she waited on, he said. Brown would give a party the once over, then hold up the sign.

One side said "No," Wise said. The other side said "Hell no."

In her 47 years as a waitress, Brown has put three children through college, she said. The grandmother of five grew up on the coast of Maine. She has been married four times.

She started at the diner in the 1990s and left around 1999 after her fourth husband, a roofer, fell to his death in a work-related accident.

"That was a terrible end of a love story," she said.

Brown went back to the Newton in 2004, and in 2008, when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the Hondroses took up a collection for her. Her paychecks continued during the three months she was unable to work.

"They are family to me," Brown said.

Within weeks of the fire, Brown was hired by Paul Tsiknakis, 25, an owner of the Metro. "I saw the values in Tina that we look for in our employees here at the Metro."

She works Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays and keeps a Christmas photo of her newest granddaughter on the cappuccino machine to show customers.

Tereshenko and his wife, Judy, faithfully visit Brown there every weekend. They greet each other like old friends.

"You can go anywhere and get a plate of eggs with potatoes and bacon," Brown said. "But when people will drive a distance just to see me, it's very flattering."