By JOHN HOWELL
Kellie Mungo cracked an egg and out popped a double yoke onto the hot grill.
“Your lucky day, Gary,” she said without looking up. Gary, who was sitting at the counter, seemed genuinely pleased he should be the recipient of such good fortune, although winning the lottery would have even been better.
Kellie cracked another egg then swiftly, using a spatula, turned a mound of hash browns in a far corner of the grill. Two more orders appeared on the grill hood and she went to work making a ham omelet. Gary’s eggs were now ready; she slid them onto a plate along with a toasted muffin.
“That’s what makes this a diner … the counter, stools and the cooking is done right in front of you.”
Kellie doesn’t remember when her late mother and father, Joyce and Elmer, and a business partner, John Malone, bought the Jefferson Diner. She figures she was 3 years old and it had to be 1970 or maybe 1969. Malone dropped out of the business and Joyce took over. That would make for the diner’s 50th anniversary as owned by the Mungo family. She’s not hung up on the date, but evidently at least one customer figured it was noteworthy and called the Warwick Beacon.
The diner has been a constant on Jefferson Boulevard, which started off as an industrial artery to the city with the Elizabeth Mill, the Malleable Iron Works and evolved into a corridor of mixed businesses from professional offices, automotive dealers, retail strips, banks, a bakery, manufacturers, hotels, restaurants, office buildings, church and even a theater.
The diner has changed with the time, catering to a later clientele. They once opened at 6 but now start at 7. Much of the fare is the same “good home cookin,’” as Kellie puts it. Her mother introduced blueberry corn bread, which is still a favorite, and Kellie isn’t bashful when it comes to bragging about their burgers, Reuben sandwiches and daily specials like shepherd’s pie on Tuesday and meatloaf on Thursday. Between being the short order chef, a job she rarely relinquishes and likes because it puts her in touch with her customers, she makes visits to the kitchen to make stews, soups and many of the staples on the menu.
As youths, Kellie and her sister Robin helped out at the diner. Her brother, Ray, went to school out of state. Working the diner wasn’t something Kellie dreamed of doing. She confides she only worked when she had to. But then more than 20 years ago, Joyce asked her daughter to come in on a more regular basis.
“She needed my help and I thought I would just be filling in,” she says. Of course, that’s not what happened. Kellie stuck to it, and with her are some loyal employees who have been there for decades. “We work like we live here,” she said. It makes for a home with the customers as extended family and Kellie the mother hen. She keeps an eye out, too.
It’s 11 and the late breakfast and early lunch crowd are starting to show up despite the freezing rain. “Hi Annie,” she says, welcoming Ann Gorman and her husband Bob, 95, and a World War II veteran. Bob says hello and the couple find a booth. But something has caught Kellie’s attention. “Who’s car is that?” she asks of the staff. They look up at the black SUV, lights on and wipers flapping just outside the door. Kellie comes from behind the counter and goes to find out. She’s back in a moment. It’s a customer she’s known for years and he’s there to pick up a take out. She friendly scolds him for nearly blocking the entrance.
Not only does the diner have its regulars, but also its regular staff. Of the 11 who keep things running seven days a week, Sue Donovan and Lynn have worked the diner for more than 30 years. “Longer than I’ve been here,” says Kellie. Kellie has no plans on retiring, although she would enjoy playing more golf. As long as she can pay the bills and customers and staff are happy, she’s happy. Besides, she adds, “its kind of second nature to me.”
It’s more than that.