PORTLAND – In the three years since Tom Manning rescued and reopened the Miss Portland Diner, he has come to appreciate the many challenges of running a restaurant.
A change in the weather, good or bad, can draw a crowd to the old Worcester Lunch Car on Marginal Way or leave his staff with plenty of time to fill salt and pepper shakers. A spike in gas prices can drive up supply costs and make it tough to keep meatloaf and hash browns affordable.
For the former Newsweek executive, the diner requires attention 24 hours a day, 52 weeks a year, even when it’s closed.
Manning still splits his time between Portland and his home in Mahwah, N.J., although he had hoped to move his family to Maine by now. When he’s away from the diner, he uses the Internet to monitor real-time cash register and seating reports and check security cameras occasionally.
“I have a new respect for people who run this type of operation,” Manning, 57, confessed. “I’m retired but I’m working harder than I have in a long time. Whether I’m in Portland or New Jersey, I’m basically never off the clock. But it’s also very rewarding.”
Manning’s fresh perspective is a little surprising, since the Munjoy Hill native grew up washing floors and stocking coolers in his father’s bar, Eddie’s Shamrock Cafe, which operated at Commercial and India streets for 30 years.
But it’s different when you’re in charge, Manning said during Friday’s lunch rush. He took some time to talk about how things have gone at the landmark diner since it reopened in October 2008.
“We’re doing OK,” Manning said. “In this economy, few restaurants are going gangbusters, but we’re pretty much on track with our business plan. And this part of the city is starting to look more and more like its own little village.”
In the last year, a Trader Joe’s specialty supermarket and a Walgreens drugstore have opened across the street from the diner.
Manning had some help in his four-year effort to save the diner from the scrap heap.
Its former owner, Randall Chasse, gave it to the city of Portland in March 2004 after trying to sell it several times, including on the Internet. Chasse had sold the diner’s former site, a few blocks down Marginal Way, to make way for a new office building, and he wanted to pass the spatula to a new owner.
Lee Urban, Portland’s former economic development director, latched onto the diner rescue as part of the city’s plan to revitalize the Bayside neighborhood. After deals with two prospective buyers fell through, Manning stepped forward in July 2006.
Determined to keep the diner in Bayside, the City Council agreed to sell him the diner for $25,000 and a sliver of city land for $75,000. Then Manning spent $1 million to move the 46-seat diner to its new location, make site improvements and build an addition that includes a modern kitchen and a 48-seat dining room.
Manning said he’s glad he was able to preserve the 62-year-old lunch car and grow it into a bustling eatery that employs 20 to 25 people year round. He’s in Portland four to five days each week, and stays at the house his father owned until he died a year ago.
When Manning’s away from the diner, Susie Geary manages the front end and Tim Brewster manages the kitchen. Manning plans to expand the diner’s evening hours this fall in the hope of introducing more people to Miss Portland’s version of comfort foods, ranging from homemade corned beef hash and macaroni and cheese to shepherd’s pie and grapenut pudding.
“I wanted to do something for the city where I grew up,” Manning said. “People tell me all the time how much they appreciate it. I meet people everywhere that I went to school with at Cathedral and Cheverus. And I’m glad to be employing a good amount of people in a down economy.”
Martha Giles, 82, of Portland is a longtime customer who enjoys hot chocolate and scrambled eggs at the diner almost daily.
“It’s so nice,” Giles said Friday. “I like the food and I like the people. They’re so friendly.”
Jenna Cyr, 19, of Limerick is one of the diner’s newer patrons. A student at the University of Southern Maine, she stopped by Friday with her boyfriend, Macon Latimer, after shopping at Trader Joe’s. She ordered a cheeseburger and a pile of sweet-potato fries.
“I was in the mood for this sort of food,” she said.
Manning still plans to move his family here if the economy and the real estate market in New Jersey cooperate. His wife, Stefanie, works in Manhattan as a marketing executive at O Magazine. They have four daughters, ages 6 to 25.
“It’s still the goal, but it’s easier said than done,” Manning said. “Maine is a great place to live and I’d love my family to grow up here. The girls love the diner. They want to help out when they’re here and the younger ones play diner when they’re home. They actually mimic things they hear at the diner. It’s really something.”
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]