It takes a whole lot more than elbow grease and culinary chops to make it in the rough-and-tumble restaurant arena these days.
Even if the fates dish out the best location and marketing strategies ever, things can still fall as flat as a botched soufflé.
Fancy-pants places that slavishly follow food trends may come and go with not-so-surprising speed—think BBQ joints and taco bars—but, thank goodness, family-run diners will always be with us.
They are the unfussy, home away from home type places where devotees say they can always count on two things: comfort foods (and plenty of them), and a person who, while pouring them that second cup of Joe, can take one look at their faces and tell whether they’ve had a good, or a bad, day.
So what is the key ingredient in the mix?
It may sound corny, but for most diner owners, that’s love. Love of what you’re doing, love of customers who, over the years, become like family, and last, but not least, love of good grub.
No one knows this better than local entrepreneurs Maria Lluka and Elizabeth Miranda.
The owners of the brand-new Hill Blvd Diner in Yorktown and the rebranded Sunrise Diner & Café in Somers, respectively, both take the care and feeding of folks very, very personally.
Their mission is their passion, one might say.
When Lluka came to America from Albania about 20 years ago to pursue her dream of owning a restaurant, she only knew a few words of English.
But she was a quick study. She learned the language and starting squirreling away the money she earned busing tables and waitressing. Before long, the Mahopac resident had enough to buy a car, home, and, eventually, to birth her own business.
She and her daughter, Kleida, opened up the Somers Diner in Lincolndale in the fall of 2012.
The cozy 49-seater is tucked into a strip mall at the intersection of Lovell Street and Route 202.
Things went well. Lluka loved her customers and they loved her.
But her extended family’s financial needs were growing in leaps and bounds and so Lluka, with a heavy heart, moved on to bigger venue.
“I’ll never forget the day I made that decision. I cried and cried,” she recalls, getting teary-eyed just thinking about her “baby.”
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE
But luckily, Lluka probably had no better person to hand it off to than Miranda, another hard-working dreamer.
The Rye resident and mom of two, also loves to keep her customers not only full and happy.
She renamed the Somers Diner, Sunrise Diner & Café, and hung “Under New Management” signs outside.
She tweaked the old menu a bit, keeping the classics beloved by regulars—waffles with strawberries and whipped cream—and adding just enough “upscale” goodies—sweet potato fries, spinach ravioli with white wine sauce—to intrigue a new crowd.
Her offerings are inspired by the bold flavors of her native Peru, whose cuisine she employed at a small takeout place she co-owned in Stamford, Conn.
Still experimenting, she may add a Peruvian-style roasted chicken this summer. (Think cumin, paprika, cilantro and jalapeños.)
In the meantime, there are mango and papaya smoothies, crab cakes, and salmon club sammies to tide adventurous foodies over.
Not to mention huevos rancheros, or “ranchers’ eggs,” eggs, refried beans, sour cream and salsa nestled on a tortilla; turkey chili, and goat cheese frittatas.
Miranda offers vegetarian and gluten-free options as well, though her kitchen is currently not big enough to have a dedicated prep area for the latter.
Those who are extra-sensitive to the tiniest hint of wheat should take note, she says.
FROM THE GROUND UP
Miranda started out in the biz by waiting tables at a number of southern Westchester restaurants.
Her Stamford eatery was hopping, but Miranda yearned for new challenges.
When she learned that there was a place for sale in Somers, she let her partner buy her out and pounced on it.
It was “turn-key,” had a well-established customer base, and, best of all, wasn’t “too big, or too small,” Miranda says.
Meanwhile, Lluka’s new “baby” was giving her a few labor pains.
The 100-seat eatery, located off Route 6, had its soft opening just before the holidays, a busy time of year when frazzled shoppers can get a tad grumpy if they don’t get their grub as fast as they think they should.
“Food made fresh, to order takes a few more minutes, but that’s what makes it good,” Lluka says.
Difficulty in finding enough chefs and wait staff made the first month “tough,” she says.
Lluka’s no wimp. She thrives on hard work—she go, go, goes seven days a week, doesn’t take vacations, and obsesses over ways to make things better. But having to throw her hat into the ring too often meant she was spending time in the kitchen she would rather be using to schmooze with, and getting to know, customers.
(This doesn’t mean that she’s not still up to her elbows in flour every day making bread the way her grandmother taught her.)
Lluka’s seriously thrilled when Somers folks patronize her new joint, especially the kids she watched grow up noshing on her mac ‘n’ cheese. Lluka named the noodle dish Little Alea after her latest grandchild.
Fortunately, the staffing wrinkles have been ironed out.
“We are good. I am happy. I sleep well,” she says, smiling.
A grand opening is planned. The date will be announced soon.
THE FEELING’S MUTUAL
Both women only been at the helms of their new culinary empires for a few months, but their respective communities appear to have warmly embraced them.
“She’s a pleasure,” says customer Terri Olson of Miranda.
The Somers resident, and her dad, Harold Campbell, were chowing down at the diner one chilly January morning.
A fine art photographer, Olson loaned Miranda some of her recent works—appropriately of hearts made out of stones, flowers, and other natural materials—to hang on the diner’s peach-colored walls.
Olson gently teased her dad about trying some of the more exotic—to him—menu items.
But it’s a no-go. He’ll stick to his familiar two eggs, bacon and one pancake—any-time-of-the -day breakfast—for now, thank you.
Lluka has made friends with neighboring business folk, many of whom she is known to greet with her charming stock phrase: “Hey, baby.”
Lluka’s mom had a tiny coffee shop in Albania, a small country northwest of Greece on Europe’s Balkan peninsula.
She starting helping out there when she was 12.
“It was fun and I really fell in love with it,” Lluka says.
She goes back occasionally to visit family and friends, but has no qualms about planting her flag in the Good Ol’ USA.
“I wanted to follow my dreams, and I did,” she says.
“I love my country. I regret nothing. But I’m a New Yorker, baby. Life is too short for regrets.”
When she was waitressing, her regulars seemed to appreciate that extra dollop of care and concern.
When she bought them the menu, they would jokingly say: “What’s this?” and then ask her what to order.
She was happy to oblige.
“I would never give anyone anything that I wouldn’t eat,” she says.
Lluka prides herself on Hill Blvd’s house-made soups and roasted meats. But it’s the desserts that also stand out.
“I make the BEST cheesecake … my secret recipe,” Lluka says.
Now that she’s got a big enough crew, she can fuss over customers.
“This is not only business, it’s more personal. I want everybody to be happy,” she says.
According to Lluka, supporting mom-and-pop restaurants, which struggle in the best of times, is important, especially since more and more folks seem to be ordering food online.
“I like to see what I eat, and the people who make it,” she says.
Her main hope is, at the moment, “to find love for this place.”
When things were rocky, Lluka took it personally.
“I say Somers is my baby, but this one is my baby too,” she explains.
Miranda, a skilled home cook, is adjusting to the demands of running a professional kitchen by herself.
“It’s different, but I’m getting there,” she says.