When Linda came to the Winter Park Diner in 1988, it was located in unincorporated Orange County. She doesn’t like to get too specific, but there were issues related to that which made owning her new business more challenging than she expected. For instance, one day someone tried to sell her a crossbow at the backdoor. Not typical diner kinda stuff.
At the end of last month I wrote about Linda’s time at the Winter Park Diner, my own experiences and thoughts on diners. I knew I’d be writing about this story again, focusing more on Linda and the people around her. As she says, 25 years, her duration at the Winter Park Diner, is “longer than most marriages.” It’s a story with many layers, as any over such a period of time.
Over the weekend of the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival I had the opportunity to meet one of Linda’s older sisters, Rose. We would have driven my life partner nuts as we engaged in non-stop quotes from Moonstruck, laughing all along the way. Rose talked about the realistic writing, characters, relating to it from their own experience growing up in a large Italian family in the New York area.
Linda and another of her sisters had purchased a New York deli before she came to Winter Park, her entree into the restaurant industry. She credits the people they purchased the deli from, an older German couple, for her training, being prepared to take on owning the diner. For her twenty five years of success at the Winter Park Diner, she also credits her employees and family.
I’m not sure if my approach of talking to her with two enthusiastic Winter Park Diner fans in attendance was genius or insanity. Lisa Coney, a friend of mine, is an enthusiastic champion for the diner, who speaks fondly of Linda and her years at the diner, coming here since she was 16. Seated on a stool next to her, Beth Wood, has been coming here since she was 22. They sing Linda’s praises, speak of what makes the Winter Park Diner special, are protective of Linda and her crew like family. Listening to them is reminiscent of hearing the oldest friends sharing stories, reacting sarcastically to one another. As in a family, they mock and kid, but it’s all in a familiar, LUVing way. They’ve got one another’s back, no question.
Linda speaks of the diner as if she’s still a bit surprised she came to it. “Believe it or not,” she shares, “(this is) one of the last places – this broker we had hooked up with to buy a business – from the get go he kept saying he wanted to show me this diner. But because he used the word diner, in my mind I was conjuring up the diners of New York, and thought I have no experience with diners. We were strictly a gourmet deli, so he showed us about, I don’t know 40, 43 places and finally on the last day said, ‘Can you just meet me at this diner? You know, I really don’t have anything else to show you, but for the fun of it, let’s go have a cup of coffee.’ And when I walked in, I went okay, this is it. Of course, I had no experience in waitressing, or servicing, anything like that, but the good news is, the owner that I bought it from, that was her second time around. She had sold it and bought it back. And she was ready to retire and absolutely LUVed me. There was somebody else who was interested at the same time but she chose me because she thought I would be successful.”
That previous owner was Liz Pulliam, whom Linda describes as “a LUVly woman”, speaks of her with a soft reverence, appreciation, explains how she’d helped guide and advise her right up until she passed away.
In 1988 the clientele was very different, as was the diner itself. Linda describes dark brown paneled walls as had been popular in the 60s and 70s. And back then, she says, the diner’s customer base was 98% male. She lightened up the space, changed the menu and environment over time, noting it’s not wise to change dramatically over night. She speaks of how well it’s built, noting the number of hurricanes it’s been through, often times coming out better than anything else around.
“Oh my gosh, we were probably the only place open during Charley in a five mile radius,” she says of the storm’s devastating arrival in 2004. “We were – oh forget it — I mean, the devastation, we were unaware of it. In my neighborhood there was nothing. By the time I pulled up my husband was like, hey, you need to go to Publix to buy bread and I’m likely really? I mean for us that would be crazy. I walked in and I didn’t stop, got to Publix and didn’t even realize why it was so dark. The first thing this lady screamed out, they’ve got coffee on register seven. I’m like ‘coffee on register seven’? So I bought out what bread they had and came to realize the devastation, I mean houses gone, there was no power.’
The big storms she’s experienced since arriving at the diner now hang on the wall over one booth, large satellite images with names the Charley, Frances, Jeanne and Ivan. “And we did everything we possibly could to help the neighbors, to help anybody. I mean, my ice machine was working overtime. By the end of the day I had no ice because everybody needed it,” she adds.
This theme of helping neighbors and customers comes up again and again. Lisa recalls a difficult time in her own life and how she saw that in a big way. “Linda’s regulars are not just regulars, they’re family,” she says. “And when I worked in the Commerce National Bank building for a few years, I had – very unfortunately – a seizure condition and the diner was doing deliveries at that time and they would literally call my office and say we’re going to be in your office doing a delivery, can we bring you back to the diner or can we bring you anything? There are not too many diners which will pick you up and drop you off and make sure you’re fed every day when you’re not feeling well. If I didn’t show up in here someone would call and say, ‘Are you okay? Do you need chicken soup?’ It never failed that somebody would pick me up and bring me in here, but then it would be a busy lunch hour and time to go and so it would be a regular saying ‘Hey, I’m headed back that way, do you want a ride?’ This place is – there’s just no other place on the planet like it.”
And when they talk of regulars, they do mean regulars. Beth, who works at the Bob Carr Theater, explains about her two plus meals a day Linda habit. “I live in the neighborhood. I’ll come in for breakfast and then I’ll get two meals to go to get me through the rest of the day.” She remarks that her co-workers are often more interested in her food than what they’re eating.
Lisa interrupts, “Regulars even know what she wants,” she says of Beth. “I could place her orders most of the time. (Referring to a voice from the kitchen, she says . . .) Did you hear Ben? He said he cooks her order before she comes in most of the time.”
Such familiarity among people doesn’t just happen, but I think it’s a natural in such a truly Local, easy-going establishment, is accented by owners and employees who care, who care to get involved.
Linda has a number of long-time employees, 10, 15 years. She has one, Bunny, has been there since almost day one. Lisa talks of Bunny’s “cult-like following”, but Bunny isn’t loud, is more succinct, I found, than chatty. Perhaps that is a by-product of being so productive, such a popular server for 25 years at the Winter Park Diner.
I ask her what it’s been like to work for Linda for so long and the first thing she says is that Linda “is a very good person.” I ask her about her favorite items on the menu and she responds simply “I don’t know. I’ve worked here so long. I LUV the stuffed cabbage. The pot roast is excellent. I don’t eat eggs. I think I’ve served too many in my lifetime.”I was told of Bunny’s experiences with the family, driving Linda’s mother to the hospital when she was to give birth to her younger daughter, Gina, and later how she took Gina out for her first time trick-or-treating. I’ve heard other Gina stories, so I ask how that was. “Oh my God,” she says, still amazed by how stories might get shared in such an environment. “How did you find out about that? She was good, but she didn’t last too long. She only went around the block once. I wanted to go further, but she wanted to go home.”
I had heard a lot of Gina stories, even remember my first time in the diner way back when, how Gina was our server. I remember her quick wit, a penchant for appearing in charge, shall we say.
Lisa likes to tell just such a story from early on in Gina’s life. “I’ve known Gina since she was a little, little girl. She was just as mouthy and just as in charge when she was 5 or 6 years old. And I remember coming in one day and seeing her with a ticket book in her hand taking someone’s order. She was 5 or 6 years old. She could run the kitchen, she could work the tables. And I remember asking, oh, Gina, are you a waitress today? She goes no way, Lisa, I own this place. And she’s still like that today.”
I get the chance to talk with Gina, who has an older sister, Jill, and I definitely get the softer, less in charge side of her. “I love working with my family,” she says in response to what she likes about working at the diner. “I don’t think I’d have it any other way. It has its moments, but at the end of the day I get to work with people who love and genuinely care about me. It’s my life. Everybody’s like family. Angie, that’s one of my mom’s best friends.” Angie is another long-time server at the diner.
I ask about favorite memories and she generalizes. “I have a lot of them. I don’t know, I guess just coming here and sitting up at the counter and everybody being, you know, talking to me.”
As we talk, I have a view into the kitchen, see Linda’s back as she mixes salad dressing. I’m getting to the end of my questions for Gina, and ask simply, Are you proud of your mom?Before she can get a word out her eyes fill with tears, not just a mild amount but I see my casual question touched a deep and sincere attachment. “I’m very proud of my mom. My mom is my hero. She’s the strongest person I know,” she finally manages. “I LUV my mom. I’m really proud of her. She’s worked very hard. I just hope I can do a good enough job, you know, following in her footsteps. Those are big shoes to fill.”
As Gina talks Linda has now turned and is coming out of the kitchen, looking at me and wondering WHAT I’ve done to her daughter. As Gina is wiping her eyes, I explain the scenario to Linda who gives me a look of controlled containment, turns and goes back into the kitchen. There was no doubt from those eyes there was about to be a mother daughter tag team of tear producers. She came back out a short time later and gave Gina a big hug.
Gina turns to me and says, “She really is my best friend.”
Happy 25th anniversary, Linda and crew!