Owner Says All Diners in NYC Will Be Gone Within Decade
By David Greene
BRONX– Bronx foodies will be scratching their heads the next time they’re looking for a late night burger or a very early breakfast as the “iconic” Pelham Bay Diner, selected as the New York Daily News’ Diner of The Year for 1995 / 1996– has been sold and quietly closed Sunday, after nearly 40 years.
Located at 1920 East Gun Hill Road in the Pelham Garden section of the Bronx, the traditional American diner was open 24 hours a day and was nestled between a Home Depot, a gateway to the I-95 and Hutchinson River Parkway interchange and the Pelham Garden Motel.
After saying goodbye to customers for hours, owner Jerry Stefantsis was at times choking back tears, when he recalled, “It’s a happy day and a sad day, the happiness is that I’m going to take it easy from now on. I’m going to retire and spend time with the family, the kids, the grandchildren. And the sad part is it’s painful after 37 years, the Pelham Bay Diner has been at this location. I spent almost all my life here. At this point I want to thank all the residents of the Bronx county who patronized the business over the year’s. We had good days, good times, good memories.”
The reason for closing, Stefantsis explained, “I think the current business climate has hit very hard times. It’s not how it use to be in the 60’s and the 70’s, I’m talking about the diner business, this type of business. Ahhh, business dropped, people don’t eat out like they used too. To run this business, it’s very hard. The cost of living went up, you cannot raise the prices. We raise, raise, raise. Payroll wen’t up. Minimum wage went up. Utilities wen’t up and business wen’t down, so that is the reason that we…today is our last day.”
“The customers made me very emotional,” according to customers, the true burger king, Stefantsis continued, “All the times I was thinking too, I was planning to sell the business, but today facing my customers for the last time, it’s hard.”
Stefantsis, a resident of Westchester County, continued, “My employees today knew about the closing for awhile now, but most of them had tears in their eyes,” a claim disputed by one of the two employees who commented on the closing.
Stefantsis then made a startling prediction, when he said, “If you did a study and go back the last five or six years, many, many diners have closed and I think, my personal opinion, in a few years from now there will be no diners around. If someone wants a cup of coffee or breakfast at 2 o’clock in the morning, they will not be able to find it.”
The proud owner recalled how local politicians like Fernando Ferrer, Guy Velella and Mario Biaggi would set up camp in a back room. Mayor Mike Bloomberg had his first lunch at the diner a day after a seagull stuck his jet plane’s engine in 2009, but Stefantsis is most proud of his coveted ‘Diner of The Year Award, hanging at the eatery’s entrance. In the final hours before shutting their doors forever, customers were asking the staff for mementos and customers walked out with cups, shot glasses and spoons. He notes, “It’s a difficult day.”
Stefantsis would only confirm that he sold the restaurant and adjacent parking lot to an unnamed Manhattan corporation, and claimed he was unaware of the developers plans, adding, “For sure it’s not going to be a diner.”
Customers were quick to offer their predictions, many believed a second motel was coming, one woman carrying a take-out order, shouted as she walked to her car, “it’s a booming business.” Another leading contender was that the diner and parking lot would be turned into an office building. Most customers said they would miss the ‘Pelham Bay Burger,’ the ‘Pelham Bay Special,’ consisting of fresh turkey and roast beef or the ‘Bronx Skillet,’ two eggs with bacon, ham, sausage and jack cheese. Many others claimed their pancakes were better than I-Hop.
Elma, a waitress at the Pelham Bay Diner for the last 3 years, recalled, “I feel mad, sad… I want to cry, I lost my job. The Pelham Bay resident added, “I’ll miss my customers, I’ll miss my boss. Elma said she was not sure what she would look in her job search.
Mariah, a second waitress who resides in Westchester County, claimed she and the customers were given little warning of the closing, explaining, “To have been here so long and to just up and leave the customers like this. They are saying how heartbreaking it is and a lot of people are recalling memories of the place and everybody just asks why it’s being sold, but we really don’t know why. Mariah stated she was given some extra cash with her last paycheck, but was now unsure where her next paycheck would come from.