Building new traditions at Montclair Diner
Reassure old school regulars and a newly energized community that a longtime local favorite hasn’t missed a step.
All Zagat stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the hardships of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve moved on to take-out, provided meals for essential workers, and more. The Sapphire Support Restaurants competition is awarding $ 50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide recovery assistance in the event of the COVID-19 pandemic. Zagat Stories features interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Eliot Mosby is the owner of the Montclair Diner in Montclair, New Jersey.
I grew up in the southern suburbs of Chicago. Later, I was an executive at United Airlines. I ended up leaving United and decided to pursue my dream. I’ve always wanted to be on the East Coast – I love the East Coast, but I really love New Jersey. It’s nostalgic for me, it reminds me of my childhood growing up. You see families being families. You see kids being kids, riding bikes, doing things kids do.
My sister has three restaurant locations in Atlanta — Harold’s Chicken and Ice Bar. These are Chicago must-sees because we are from Chicago. I watched her struggle, but I also saw the independence she had as an entrepreneur. And also, I love the food. I am a foodie.
I acquired Montclair Diner in May 2019 from a guy who owned the restaurant for over 30 years. He had built a very good relationship with the community. It was me and my executive chef who would come in and try to let people know that they were still going to have the same love, the same great food as before, as well as a few new items that we added to the menu. It was a good atmosphere, very community oriented. I owned the restaurant not even a year before the pandemic hit.
The news broke on a Sunday. We are normally packed on Sunday. That day we saw a huge drop in our customers walk through the door and then Monday was like a ghost town. We really didn’t want to do the deliveries in-house. We had added Uber Eats, but we didn’t have any of the other third-party delivery platforms.
We have gone from a 96% onsite restore model to virtually zero onsite restore and a pure delivery model. The waiters delivered, I delivered, the chef delivered. We added Grubhub. We already had Uber Eats. We went to family style meals because I realized that because we are a diner we can have breakfast, lunch and dinner. We offered families meals at reduced prices so it was economical for them. We didn’t have customers coming in, but we could at least go see our customers and show them that we’re still there, we’re always open, we’re there for them.
We have an alley which is right next to the restaurant. We had talked about expanding our outdoor dining area right in front of the restaurant, which our customers were used to, and really integrating that alley. So when that was cleared later, we really took advantage of it. We animated the alley. There is a mural there and some bricks. We have added some of these Edison lights above. We teamed up with a local jazz band and started offering live music every Sunday just to bring the community back to life.
Expanded alfresco dining and live jazz were supposed to last during the worst of the pandemic, but they still are to this day. We are continuing it as a kind of new tradition. We’ve expanded it to include other types of artists as well – we’ve got jazz, we’ve got R&B, we’ve got folk, we’ve got guest DJs coming out.
What kept me going was my staff. I know my team worked really hard. Even though it hadn’t been a year, we had developed very close bonds with each other. So the biggest part for me was making sure I was there for my team. For the first few weeks, I stopped paying myself because I wanted to make sure they were okay. These are just the sacrifices you make when you have a business. We reduced our hours, but we never closed. We serve a lot of seniors who don’t have their children here with them, so we wanted to make sure that we also remained open to the community.
I was a member of 100 Black Men of Chicago and New York and I was a part of Big Brothers, Big Sisters. It’s just something that’s always been in me. Even when I was an executive in an American company, I always made sure that my team knew the importance of giving back to the community. It has always been in my DNA.
When things got very dark during the pandemic, it reaffirmed how I felt for the community to see them trying to give a hand to the less fortunate and hospital workers, not only in wealthy areas, but also specifically in black and brown communities. I saw people from the community, as well as family and friends, really come to help and support us. I had friends from high school that I hadn’t spoken to in years who would follow my story through social media and say, “Hey, how can I help? I see what you are doing. I am very proud of you and the work you do.
We have clients who existed before I bought the restaurant, and now I have my own relationship with them. The previous owner was old school Greek and very steeped in his ways. He believed there was a certain way of doing things. What I had to make him understand was that his relationships with his clients were his relationships. My relationship with them will have to be the relationship we forge with each other.
When I acquired the premises, the previous owner stayed for the first eight months. He was older, and that was the only thing he had. So I said to him, “Hey, come two or three days a week if you want. He needed it, and I was okay with it. During those eight months he could see that what I was saying was true. He had his relationship with them, and now I had created my own relationship with them. I wanted him to see that he made the right decision. He actually received quite a few offers for his place, but he accepted my offer. I think he saw the family dynamic that I enjoy during those first eight months he was still there at the restaurant.
I am proud of my Executive Chef Gus Moya, the waiters, the cooks and the whole team. I was really proud to see how they were able to be nimble and adapt to the new standard. Everything we tried worked and it showed our resilience as a team. There were many days he was dead, and we were watching Netflix and Hulu. But the point is, we’ve been successful, and we’re on the other side, and we’re carrying on some of our new traditions that are now part of our restaurant and our culture.