Greasy Spoons Week continues on today with Lifers, where we honor a member of the diner workforce who has toiled over the flat top and suffered burns from wayward splashes from the coffee pot for decades while getting very little pay. Today, we caught up with Karen Donahue of the Melrose Diner in South Philly, who has worked in the diner system for almost 50 years.
How long have you worked in diners?
Well, I worked at The Penrose Diner on 20th Street for about 30 years, and I've worked here since, um, about 1997. So, just under 50 years in total in the diner business.
How has diner culture changed since you started?
It's changed a lot. It's almost unrecognizeable from where we were in the beginning. You have to understand when I started in this business there weren't all these restaurants around, not even McDonald's. So, we were pretty much the only real option at that time. And South Philly was full of diners. Diners on almost every corner.
So, what specifically changed within each diner, or what was the driving force behind changes in the way a diner was run?
The owners are what really change the environment. Each owner wants things done just a little differently, and when you add it all up, it can be a lot. We changed owners just about 6 years ago here, and each time it happens you have to re-learn the way you do different things that you were used to doing one way for a long time.
How have tastes changed with the public? What have been the biggest changes in diner food since you've started?
Mostly, it's the size of the menu. As of now, you have absolutely everything available on our menu. The guy before we only had certain things, and once they were done for the day, they were done. Now, we have to have everything available because you never know who is going to order what and you have to be prepared.
What were the most popular dishes when you first started, and what are the most popular today?
MP1, uh, (laughing) I mean chicken cutlet. Sorry, that's how we see things with the diner codes. But, it was chicken cutlet originally. And CB1, and CB2, and 3, which are all chop steaks. One had mushrooms and onions, one had cheese, mainly it was the different toppings. Nowadays it's definitely the Italian dishes, like the veal parm and chicken parm, shrimp and scallops, shrimp scampi. Those are the big ones. We sell a lot of those.
Regulars are a big part of the diner, do the regulars always order the same thing, and how often do they come by?
(Pointing at the man sitting two stools down) Howard does. He always orders the same thing. I would say most of them do order the same thing every time. And Howard is here almost every day if not every day. I would say a big portion come here every day. We used to have more regulars because of the local businesses here, but the neighborhood changed which affected our regulars.
We had the Bell Telephone building here on the corner which shut down awhile ago, and the electric company had a big building here, but that's gone, too. And we had St. Agnes hospital, which is now hospice care. The crowds were so much bigger. And we don't get a lot of transients because there isn't much parking. But some of the neighborhood people have been here for generations and have come for decades.
How are the overnight crowds different than daytime?
(Laughing) I haven't handled the late night crowd for a long time. It's much different. You have to know how to handle yourself because most of the people coming in at 3 a.m. are drunks. I remember one time when I was working at the Penrose, a guy's wife was giving me a problem because I smiled at her husband, which is what you're supposed to do. But she wasn't having it.
Has your family also been part of diner culture or just you?
Just me. Not my parents or my children. My sister does, and we worked in the same places growing up, but it's just me.
Did you always think this would be a lifelong career?
No, I didn't. But, I stuck with it because I always liked the work and I still do. It's fun for me. I won't be doing it too much longer, I'm 66 years old now. But it's been good to me.
Has Philly changed since the arrival of Stephen Starr, and less have gone the way of diners?
Not at all. Diner regulars are diner regulars for life. And that hasn't changed, and it's not going to change. It's a separate group of people. There are people who go to fancy restaurants and come here sometimes, but the people who have always come here will continue to do so.