Written by Chelsea Rose Moore | Photos by Joanne Maisano
Far more than just a place to eat pancakes and eggs, small town diners are the heartbeat of local communities. They serve as the town’s hub, a place where news is shared and early morning Bible studies are held. Bridging the gap between young and old, neighborhood diners are where the town’s elderly residents rely on conversations over black coffee, and families feel comfortable taking their young children out for a meal.
Almost like the town parents, diner owners know their customers by name and celebrate their milestones, raise money for the community, and dedicate their lives to making their customers’ days brighter. For most owners, the diner is the embodiment of a lifelong dream, and seeing happy customers is all the recognition they need.
Yet diners, whose owners have invested so much time and energy in the community over the years, are struggling to keep their doors open. It’s now the community’s turn to lift their neighborhood diners up.
Tammy’s Diner | Round Hill, Va.
The iconic Tammy’s Diner sits at the end of Round Hill’s Main Street. “People say, ‘This is our home away from home,’” owner Tammy Hines said. “They get up out of bed and come to Tammy’s for breakfast; they go back home and watch a TV show and come back for lunch. [But] it’s not like that anymore.”
Since March 2020, the diner has struggled to stay on its feet. “Everybody is struggling right now,” Hines said. “There are so many restaurants that have closed. And that’s my biggest fear.” March marks 15 years of Tammy’s Diner. “This has always been my dream to have my own restaurant,” she said.
Tammy’s Diner Outside.
January and February were slow months for the diner, both due to COVID and the constant barrage of snow and ice storms. During a normal year, the winter months are the busiest, but this year is different. The diner’s soda machine has gone from using 10 bags of ice per day down to just one.
And Hines is worried. “I am down 75-80%,” she said. “My accountant said, ‘You are OK, but you are sinking. Just keep your head above the water. It doesn’t take long to sink. You’re strong; you can do this.’” Hines wants to make sure she stays open to serve the Round Hill community, particularly its elderly residents.
“I am the only restaurant in Round Hill that these elderly people have,” she said. “[But] I am flat broke. I am living day to day. It’s hard. This is very hard. There are some days you feel like it’s the end.” As the sole provider for her household with a sick husband and daughter, Hines feels the pressure of working to provide for her family in an unstable environment.
In the fall, Matthew Speer, a customer, reached out to help her. “He said, ‘I could see in your eyes: You’re struggling; you are tired; you look worn out. With your permission, can I help you?’ she said. Speer began a GoFundMe page for the restaurant and raised over $12,000. The fundraiser was picked up by the Loudoun-Times Mirror, Loudoun Now and Channel 7 news.
“Matthew has been an angel for me,” Hines said. “Had it not been for him at that point, I don’t know where I would have been. I had bills to pay by the end of the year.” The GoFundMe enabled Hines to pay off the debts she had accumulated in 2020. And while the extra attention initially drew more people to her restaurant, it has worn off as time has passed. “When you don’t do enough that you can see the numbers coming up, then you start to worry,” she said.
Tammy’s Diner serves homestyle breakfasts all day and classic lunch fare. Hines can’t afford to offer weekly specials right now. “If you don’t sell it, you’re throwing it away,” she said. “[Then] you spent more money on the food to have a special.” Over the last year, food prices have increased too. And since nothing on her menu is over $10, Hines has had to get creative about where she sources her food. Lately, purchasing some products from Walmart and Martin’s has been cheaper for her.
She commutes from Stephens City each day but says she wouldn’t want to be anywhere other than Loudoun County. She often serves Round Hill kids who walk to her restaurant on their school lunch break. “They say, ‘Miss Tammy, can I eat? My mom will come by later, and she’ll give you a check.’ I don’t tell anyone no,” she said. “I don’t want you to go away hungry.”
Open from 6 a.m.–2 p.m. daily, Tammy’s Diner is located at 2 E Loudoun St, Round Hill, Va.
Boyd’s Nest Restaurant | Berryville, Va.
Boyd’s Nest Restaurant, a small diner with a big heart, closed permanently in December after serving the Berryville community for nine years. Owner Kim Ragland measured the inside of the building and realized the new COVID regulations meant the restaurant could only seat nine guests at a time—not enough to keep the business going.
“It was hard to let it go,” she said. “It’s still weird to me to drive down and not go in there. It was just an extension of my life. We saw people get married who met in the restaurant. We held brand new babies. We watched kids go from being in the cradle to starting school. It was hard to [close] it. I got a phone call Saturday morning wanting a takeout order.”
Last spring, after closing for the first few months of the pandemic, Ragland began looking for ways to pivot her business model. She saw other restaurants offering family takeout meals, and she wanted to offer something different. “I’m looking at what they are offering as takeout, and it’s all comfort food,” she said. “Everybody was playing that family meal thing, but that’s what people are already making at home.”
As an alternative, Ragland dreamed up “Date Night Friday Night.” Her idea was for families to buy a pizza for their kids and then treat themselves to a romantic dinner at home. Designed as a meal kit, the first dinner featured crab cakes, mushroom risotto, a salad and heart-shaped votive candles. Next came a Mother’s Day brunch kit and then a Smokin’ Hot Father’s Day kit, where everything was smoked, down to the pecans on the turtle cheesecake and the blue cheese in the salad.
“We weren’t making money,” Ragland said. “We were covering the expenses of the building. We weren’t going backwards, but we couldn’t go forwards.” Eventually, after months of working hard to keep the restaurant afloat, they had to shut the doors. The team at Boyd’s Nest has always been dedicated to serving the Clarke County community. Even after closing the doors, it’s still something Ragland is wholeheartedly pursuing.
Boyd’s Nest Sign.
“We wanted a restaurant where you could come to eat every day and could afford,” Ragland said. “And there would be specials that always made it different. We had someone who ate every day at our restaurant, except on Fridays, she ate at Mario’s with her great-grandson. We had groups of people every day of the week. Tuesday morning was a group that came in and met for breakfast. Wednesday was the Lion’s Club. Thursday was the men’s Bible study group. Friday was the ladies’ group. We wanted it to be like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name.”
At Boyd’s Nest, customers enjoyed the laidback vibe, scooting tables together, chatting with other patrons, and shooting the breeze with Ragland. “We took the door off the kitchen,” Ragland said. “People would stand there to yak and talk to me while I was cooking their breakfast. We wanted it to be the place for widows and widowers who didn’t like to eat alone. I would say, ‘You’re not alone, I’m here. Come hang out with me.’ And they did. We really got to know so many of them.”
One customer asked Ragland to make all the food for her dad’s funeral, because “you knew what dad loved to eat,” she said. When another customer was dying of esophageal cancer, Ragland stepped up. “He was in hospice care,” she said. “He couldn’t really eat, but he wasn’t on a feeding tube. I would puree the heck out of stuff and make it so it could slide down. We used to say the restaurant was a front for what we were doing.”
Ragland also worked to drum up support for local fundraisers. She sold birdhouses to raise money for the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center. She participated in Toys for Tots and raised funds for the Red Wagon Ministry. She started the Hungry Backpack program, gathering thousands of dollars in donations from her customers and enlisting volunteers to help portion and pack food, making sure at-risk kids in Clarke County were fed during the summer. Over the course of 10 weeks, over 9,000 meals left Boyd’s Nest for “her kids.” Additionally, other organizations teamed up to help provide for school-aged children, giving every child vouchers for summer camp, school supplies, a new pair of shoes, and a backpack.
“I never met the kids, but I wanted them to know their community valued and loved them,” she said. “If we have the space, we should use it for the community. The restaurant was just a front. We felt like that was why we were put there.”
With the restaurant closed, Ragland, the president of Berryville Main Street, is focused on networking Clarke County businesses. Together with her board, she’s transforming Berryville Main Street into the Clarke Business Collective. The organization’s focus will be on collective promotion, destination event planning, and creating awareness across surrounding counties of the unique experiences found in Clarke County.
“We will continue to support all the downtown Berryville events we did as Main Street; we will just be more inclusive of our businesses throughout the county,” she said. “We’re good, and we’re strong, and we’re going to have some fun.” ML
Make a plan to visit your neighborhood diner this month! Or plan a diner tour and visit all the local diners to experience a taste of each town.
Published in the March 2021 issue of Middleburg Life.