Commitment to customers, business key to operating successful diner

DEDICATED: Owner Christos Kirios and waitress Brenda Richer at the Middle of Nowhere Diner in Exeter. Kirios says he works in the kitchen six days a week because it sends a message to the employees that the owner is involved. / PBN PHOTO/
DEDICATED: Owner Christos Kirios and waitress Brenda Richer at the Middle of Nowhere Diner in Exeter. Kirios says he works in the kitchen six days a week because it sends a message to the employees that the owner is involved. / PBN PHOTO/

As nostalgic as people can get about Rhode Island diners, managing them can be a small-business challenge.

Let’s start with the hours. Most diners in Rhode Island are known for breakfasts, which means an early rise for managers. The competitive brunch business requires weekend duty.

When the Elmwood Diner closed last year, its owners half-jokingly said they wanted their weekends back.

A diner requires a commitment to the customers and the business. It can be draining, said Carol Olney, an owner of the family-run Cindy’s Diner in Scituate.

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The vintage-interior of the diner dates to the 1950s. Her mother and stepfather purchased it in 1984. Olney has managed the business for the past five years.

She arrives each morning between 4:30 and 5 a.m., to prep for the 6 a.m. opening.

“You have to be married to it,” she said of running a diner.

One of the best parts of the job is the family atmosphere. The diner has been a part of her life for 30 years, and it’s a center in the community. Some of the customers have been coming for decades. One of the waitresses now working at Cindy’s is the daughter of an original waitress.

At 6 a.m., the regulars on their way to work, but stopping for breakfast first, are among the earliest customers.

The diner stays open until 8 p.m., which makes for a long, tiring day. “If you love people, it’s a good business. It does consume too much of your time, it really does. This is why a lot of places close at 2, rather than at 8,” Olney said.

Rhode Island has more than 50 diners, according to a book published in 2016 that included a description of each. The state is the birthplace of the diner, according to the introduction to “Rhode Island Diners Today,” by Raymond A. Wolf.

The first, which had its origins in a horse-drawn cart, set up outside the Providence Journal in 1872 and was directed at the paper’s overnight workers.

Another early diner survives today. Haven Brothers Diner, which operates outside Providence City Hall nightly, was first established in 1893 by a widow, Anne P. Haven, according to the book.

Beyond Providence, diners are ensconced in all towns. Exeter is the home of the Middle of Nowhere Diner, which was established in the 1960s. Its motto: “You will always feel at home and never leave hungry.”

Known for big portions and simple, appealing combinations, the diner is now owned by Christos Kirios, his uncle and two cousins. Previously, his father and uncle owned it.

Kirios, at 24, said he works at the diner six days a week. He likes to help in the kitchen, or wherever else he is needed. Every day, one of the four owners is at the restaurant, but because the ownership is shared this means that everyone gets at least a day off.

The hours are 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. He loves seeing people, loves being a part of the community. Exeter isn’t exactly the “middle of nowhere,” but it’s not Providence either. “Not much going on around here,” he said.

‘If you love people, it’s a good business.’ CAROL OLNEY, Cindy’s Diner owner

The challenge of management is the size of the staff and the splintered schedules. If a change is made, it’s hard to convey that to everyone. Between the varying shifts, the restaurant has 35 employees, about half in front and half in the kitchen.

“It’s hard to get all the employees on the same page,” he said. “You are here one day, you explain something to one person. Someone comes in the next day, ‘Oh, I didn’t know about this.’ ”

The workload is shared, he said. He pitches in, mostly in the kitchen, because he thinks it sends a message to the employees. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re the owner. You can sit back. But I like getting hands-on with the work. When employees see the owner is working, they care more. They see the owner is involved, just like them.”

At Cindy’s, Olney said the restaurant has tried to keep its traditions. The menu includes, as it always has, ham that is carved from the bone. Customers can make their orders as specific as they like.

The décor, vintage 1950s, is intact, but keeping up that appearance has its own challenges.

It would be easier to have a restaurant with more-modern furnishings, where a chair style could be swapped out easily. When Olney needed to upgrade the pie case, an antique display that had glass doors and stainless-steel trim, the search for a suitable replacement was exhausting. “It took me months to find something that was retro enough to deserve the area,” she said.

In the end, she chose a different style that had a retro vibe. “It took me a long time to find it and it wasn’t cheap. To be a ’50s-style diner, it would be easier to just be a regular place,” she said.

At a time when restaurant dishes are becoming more elaborate, and “foodies” are driving demand for ever-more unusual combinations, diner menus of western omelets and country breakfasts are appealing to many people. The modest prices are part of the lure.

Healthy options also are available, if you know where to look. “A diner is one of the healthiest places to eat, if you choose to eat healthy, because everything is cooked to order,” Olney said. “If you want a piece of chicken with nothing on it, you can have it. If you want an omelet with egg whites and fresh veggies, you can have it.”