By DIEGO JESUS BARTESAGH MENA
Throughout the pandemic, Montclair Diner’s owner and staff stepped up to help a community in need. Now, that generosity is being repaid via a $50,000 in grant from Chase Sapphire.
Eliot Mosby, a former United Airlines executive, bought the diner in 2019 from longtime owner Gus Makris. He’d owned the restaurant for less than a year when news of pandemic shutdowns hit in March of 2020. Restaurants were ordered to suspend eat-in service, and allowed only to provide takeout.
Mosby said he learned about the shutdown on a Sunday, one of the restaurant’s busiest days. He said he saw a huge decline in customers coming in that day. The following days, Mosby said, Montclair was like a ghost town.
Even though the diner had to reduce its hours, it remained open, Mosby said. He didn’t lay off any staff; many instead helped as they adapted to a new way of doing businesses.
“It was all hands-on deck,” Mosby said. “I delivered. [Executive] chef Gus Moya delivered. The servers delivered. And we really just wanted to get out and just make sure that the people that we serve in the community and our customers were okay.”
Mosby said the diner also changed its menu, transitioning to “family-style” means, where — where a single order can serve four to five people for less money than ordering separate meals. He said the family-style meals are still available.
“We made sure we put a pretty extensive menu out there just because we knew people would be tired of eating at home and they want to have some more variety,” Mosby said.
Mosby also said the diner, with the help of family members and friends, was able to raise $10,000 in donations from March to June of 2020 to feed frontline workers. He said the restaurant partnered with local organizations such as the Montclair chapter of the NAACP, Montclair Emergency Services for Hope and Women for Progress.
“We bought food, we cooked it and we would do catering-style meals to hospitals,” Mosby said. The diner would serve anywhere from 25 to 100 or so people at a given hospital.
Those efforts benefited workers at University Hospital in Newark, East Orange Hospital, St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson, Mountainside hospital in Montclair. The diner also fed firefighters, police and EMTs.
The diner worked with community groups (Chase Sapphire noted its partnerships with Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and St. John’s Church in West Orange) as well as school systems to feed families that had been affected financially by the pandemic. Diner staffers prepared meals for them, and delivered groceries.
“So, we did a lot of stuff around making sure people were eating around this time,” Mosbly said.
According to Chase Sapphire, Montclair Diner fed 1,500 families in need before and during the pandemic.
In June of 2020, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order allowing outdoor dining. For the Montclair Diner, that meant using the alleyway alongside the building. It was decorated with Edison lights, a garden and a mural. The restaurant also partnered with local jazz bands, which continue to play every Sunday.
“That kind of took a presence of its own, because now we still do all these traditions that we started during the beginning of the pandemic, and they’re still working,” Mosby said. “We really made it a cool, funky space for customers to eat out.”
The news about the grant came as a surprise, Mosby said. He said a longtime customer nominated the diner for the grant and submitted the application on his behalf.
“I was definitely excited and just grateful because the things that we did during the pandemic [were] not to get this Chase grant, or to get other awards that we’ve gotten,” Mosby said. “We really just did it because we knew that we needed to step up and do our part in the community.”
The first thing he did with the money?
“Even though [our workers] still were being paid during the COVID pandemic, with the reduced hours, they weren’t taking home their full paycheck,” Mosby said. “So, we made sure that we gave them a bonus first.”
The diner also invested in new equipment — a new flatiron and new refrigeration. Eventually, the diner will go under some renovations,
Mosby said the restaurant will continue helping the community. The diner is partnering with an Adopt a Family started by a West Orange resident and supported by volunteers from Montclair Mutual Aid. It will host an “Angel Tree,” where customers can pick up cards listing items that selected families need.
And the restaurants will continue to provide food for families in need.
“Families that are in need, or might still have one or two parents that aren’t working yet, we’re going to identify those with some other organizations and make sure that we give them meals,” Mosby said. “And if there are people that want to donate meals, and we had this happen last year as well, [they] can call in and they can pay for meals for families. We’ll make sure that they get to the families that are in need.”
Chase Sapphire, in announcing the grant, also noted the diner employs students in the Montclair community, helping them work and build employment skills.
Mosby said the Montclair community has been welcoming since the day he took over the diner.
“Montclair, to me, is a type of community that gives back, especially when they see that you care and that you give back,” Mosby said. “And even though I’m not from Montclair, I feel like I am part of the community now. It was so much love and an [outpouring] of support. It was very refreshing to see that. There are communities that still exist that can pull together during a time of need.”