Food and Wine

GET YOUR NOSTALGIA FIX QUICK: Another old-style diner closes up shop

Zellers Family Diner at Billings Bridge will likely be replaced by a Starbucks
By Michael Prentice

Photography by Justin Van Leeuwen

The old-fashioned diner in the soon-to-close Zellers store at Billings Bridge Plaza resembles a time capsule from 50 years ago. It even calls itself the Zellers Family Diner. Its appearance hasn’t changed in years — or even decades. But the restaurant will close its doors forever in mid-December, leaving many unhappy regulars looking for an alternative that suits them as well. The diner is closing because this Zellers location, like several in Ottawa, is slated to be converted into a Target department store. But while the diner will shut down in December, the Zellers is expected to remain open until March. The word is that when it reopens as a Target store, a Starbucks will replace the diner.

So long: (Left to right) Donna Cummings, Najwa Acar, and Krista Goodchild. Staff and diners call Cummings the heart and soul of the restaurant. Along with managing the diner, she runs bingo nights for customers (and makes the desserts for the evening herself ). Photography by Justin Van Leeuwen

Donna Cummings is the heart and soul of the diner. She’s a big reason many customers return time and again. Some know her only by her first name. Some know her just as “the lady who always serves us.”

Donna, who has worked at the diner for a decade, supervises a staff of eight in the 94-seat restaurant. She says she has no idea where, or if, she’ll find another job. “I’m going to be 58 in January. Who’s going to hire me?” she wonders. But she knows she’ll be at the helm until the last day. “It’s too early to look for another job,” she says. “I can’t just abandon my regular customers. A captain goes down with the ship.”

While Target has reportedly said it will hire Zellers employees whenever possible, Donna says the staff have received no guarantees.

Photography by Justin Van Leeuwen

Peter Sorokan, a former federal public servant in the justice department, says he’s prepared to follow Donna wherever she goes — if she finds work with another restaurant. Sorokan is one of an informal group of a half-dozen men, all retired, who meet regularly for breakfast at the diner on Fridays to discuss politics, history, their investments (in the stock market and the lottery), and whatever else interests them.

On a recent Friday, he was joined by fellow retired public servants Philip Boyes and Frank Cedar, former computer programmer Toivo Sallila, and former eye doctor Jim Mount, Ottawa’s first neuro-ophthalmologist. Sorokan says it’s the service provided by Donna Cummings and her team that keeps his group coming back. “We need a place that is not so busy that they want us out of there in 15 minutes.”

Many of the diner’s regular customers are retired, but it also appeals to a few young people. One is eight-year-old Alice Burr. Her mother, Linda, has been a customer of the diner for about five years. “My daughter loves it,” she says. “It’s a combination of the old-fashioned look and the feel of the place. We’re always served by the same lady. The food is not that great, but my daughter enjoys it. And the staff always give kids a game or a toy or a cookie. It’s so different from going to McDonald’s.”

Najwa Acar came to Canada from Lebanon 21 years ago and has worked at the diner for most of the time since. “I don’t know yet whether I’ll look for another job,” she says. “I’m almost 65. I just love working here. It’s like a home to me, and we’re like a family here.”

Besides managing the diner, Donna Cummings also runs a monthly bingo session for her customers. The $12 entrance fee includes dinner. The restaurant donates the prizes, “and I make the desserts myself,” she says. Now Donna is busy scouting the neighbourhood for an alternative restaurant and meeting place to suggest to her mostly elderly clientele. “I am looking for a place where they offer good value for seniors. I want to make sure they have somewhere to go.”

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