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Leading with heart: Restaurant success beyond sales

bread loaf hands

For our third annual Power 20 issue, we’re spotlighting local leaders, the restaurateurs defining and shaping the market in their part of the country. There are some whose game-changing moves resonate mostly within the borders of their own states. Then there are others, such as Cleveland’s Michael Symon, whose concepts may be locally concentrated but whose reputations reach far wider.

Less likely to make a list like this, but as important to the local culinary landscape, are the salt-of-the-earth moms and pops—those restaurants that measure their power less by the size of their profits (although many do mind-blowing volume) than the happiness of their regulars.

I asked the editors of Restaurant Business to share their picks for the unsung “leaders” from their own hometowns. (Sadly, my pick, Tasty Dog in Oak Park, Ill.—the burgers and dogs joint that was my lunch destination every day from sophomore through senior year in high school­­—closed last year.) What is it about the way these operators run their restaurants that captures that most desired, yet elusive kind of diner: the repeat customer? Based on these examples, it’s a combination of kitsch, value, tight spaces, a sense of community and a whole lot of heart.

mannys snack shack

Manny’s Snack Shack, Twin Lakes, Wis.

(Alaina Lancaster, assistant editor) 
The happiest place on earth is this small diner. It has vinyl booths patched up with duct tape. The theme ranges from fishing to bears to Jesus Christ. Manny is almost always behind the counter making your food. And sometimes he will just hand you ice cream sandwiches, and you eat them graciously even though your stomach is about to explode. It is completely authentic. It embodies Manny, and you just want to support someone who gives so much of himself to the community.

cozy inn burgers

Cozy Inn, Salina, Kan.

(Grey Montgomery, chief content officer)
A very small place with a diner counter for eight and a simple menu: mini burgers. The only question to consider: How many? The place is so rich in smell and old, small-town aura, we would leave smelling like sauteed onions for days.

port washington diner

Port Washington Diner, Port Washington, N.Y.

(Peter Romeo, digital content director)
Every visit starts with getting caught up on the local news and gossip. Although it is a cleaned-up version of the classic diner, the ambiance is homey because of the staff’s warmth. The menu is eclectic; where else could you get goulash, a quesadilla (Greek or regular) or a custom-made salad (steamed broccoli on the side) at any time of day? I could probably get better food elsewhere, and certainly spend less for comparable volume. But eating is incidental to being there.

golden harvest sign

Golden Harvest, Lansing, Mich.

(Lexi McPike, copy editor)
It’s a tiny, kitsch-laden, family-run hovel whose exterior looks straight out of the 70s. The slightly anarchist staff seemingly hasn’t changed in a decade. The self-described “breakfast party” spot takes only cash, and knowing you can’t plan a visit with less than two hours (one hour to wait in line and another for your breakfast) is part of the charm. They ignore pleas to expand to keep the same two chefs on so the food is consistently amazing, and those in the know order exclusively off the board (picured above).

country charm

Country Charm, New Lenox, Ill.

(Lindsay Holley, digital production manager)
“The cups, plates and silverware are really old and worn, which reminds me of my grandparents' house.”

egg harbor cafe

Egg Harbor cafe, Hinsdale, Ill. 

(Sara Rush Wirth, senior editor)
“It’s affordable … and the perfect blend of a varied menu, always well-executed, balanced with just enough rooster kitsch.”

parkway cafe breakfast

Parkway Cafe, Scarsdale, N.Y.

(Patricia Cobe, senior editor)
“My best friend since third grade and I would meet at this coffee shop every year for breakfast to celebrate our birthdays. The familiar faces and the neighbors we always ran into made us feel welcome.”

hanners bakery breakfast

Harner’s Bakery and Restaurant, North Aurora, Ill.

(Mary Chapman, special projects editor)
“If Robert Irvine came by, he’d tear it apart. There’s a salad bar that often has things like meatballs or Polish sausage. We go there a lot for breakfast, but it’s great for comfort-food dinners.”

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