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80 years of hot coffee and hospitality at the Woodlawn Diner

Time stands still inside the Woodlawn Diner, no matter what the neon-rimmed clock says.

The 48-seat restaurant at 3199 Lakeshore Road offers high-back booths, tabletop jukeboxes, fast service and cheap eats.

Located on the corner of Second Street and Route 5, the faded red diner with a glass-block entryway has served as the place to meet and eat since 1937, when Mary L. Schweikert moved the original diner, a former dining car, from Bailey Avenue and William Street to its current location. In 1952 she replaced the rail car with a newly constructed building that remains in use today.

The recipe for success is simple. The place is clean. Its stainless-steel wall sparkles. The grub is good and the staff, whose uniforms today feature ketchup red T-shirts, is friendly.

It’s had just two other owners in its nearly 80 years in Woodlawn.

When David and Joan Ries purchased the diner from Schweikert in 1985, there were grooves in the counter created over decades by hungry steelworkers sitting on stools with elbows firmly planted, chowing down on towers of flapjacks, sausage on the side.

Last summer Melissa Fisher Jenkins, a regular customer, became its third owner. And the story of the Woodlawn Diner will continue.

Ran a tight ship

Back in the ’50s when a chip steak dinner cost 40 cents and coffee ran 5 cents a cup, the daily special at the Woodlawn Diner usually cost under a dollar, recalled Shirley Schweikert, a daughter-in-law who worked at the diner part-time as a waitress.

Homemade meat loaf, mashed potatoes and a vegetable side sold for $1.25. Customers could count on mac ’n’ cheese as the special on Fridays. One dish favored by truckers regularly sold out, Shirley recalled. “You’d get a big plate of beans, a couple of wieners and your choice of bread,” she said. “Coffee was extra.”

Shirley Schweikert, 78, has lived in Woodlawn in the same house for 57 years.

Her mother-in-law lived behind the diner she built, said Shirley. Her presence was constant. Mary kept a close eye on the business, pitching in behind the counter, helping out at the steam table or sipping coffee in her favorite booth by the cash register.

Schweikert was at the steam table, Shirley said, the one time the diner was struck by a truck.

“My mother was checking the soups in the steam table when a semi took off the front of the diner,” Shirley said. “The driver was at the counter eating and left the rig running and something happened with his brakes.”

The Woodlawn Volunteer Fire Company, located three blocks south of the diner across Lakeshore Road, named Mary an honorary member, honoring her for delivering coffee to first responders at working fires. Schweikert’s son – and Shirley’s late husband – Charles “Bud” Schweikert died in 2014. He served 50 years as a member of the fire company.

“My mother-in-law was probably one of the first people to wear pointed toe high heels,” Shirley said. “She used to say the reason she wore them was to ‘motivate’ the help, to kick them in the behind if they slacked off. She was not easy to work for. She was very strict and ran a tight ship.”

From the late ’40s on, Schweikert ran the diner on her own after a divorce. Her ex-husband, Sidney Schweikert, opened another diner at 3251 Lakeshore, a short distance from the Woodlawn Diner. He named it Belle after his second wife, Isabelle.

“We sold the diner in 1985 for $30,000,” recalled Shirley. “Mom would not let us sell it. The only reason she decided to sell was because we had to close it down. When I go in there now and see the picture of Mom on the wall, I feel melancholy. It was ours at one time and now it’s not.”

Schweikert died in 1991, according to her daughter-in-law. She was 89.

Not a chain restaurant

In the mid-’80s Ries was 29 and hungry for his own restaurant. At the time, he managed the kitchen at Hamburg Holiday Inn on Camp Road, a favorite breakfast stop for many commuters. His wife completed the culinary program at BOCES. Joan Ries liked to cook and bake. She also worked as a waitress.

“We saw the diner was for sale in the newspaper, and we went to look at it,” said Ries, sitting in the diner one recent morning. “We just shook our heads because – and this is a compliment to Mary Schweikert – it showed wear and tear from being massively busy when the steel plant was in full swing.

“I don’t think either one of us could have made it work without the other. Working keeps us tighter. It’s not like we go home and shop talk.”

For 30 years, Ries started his day when much of the world was sleeping, peeling 20 pounds of potatoes, chopping onions, slicing lunch meat, preparing soups.

“We get the travelers, the boaters. The beach is open,” Ries said. “Workers stop in before the first shift or after the third. They’d rather come in and drink coffee, read the paper before rushing to work.”

John Hasse, a general contractor, lives in Hamburg. At the diner, he’s a regular at the counter. “Service is quick. Food is good. It’s affordable,” Hasse said one recent morning while he waited for breakfast. “The larger restaurants, you have to put some time aside to go there. This is convenient.”

Ken Makelke, 58, an electrician, lives by Hamburg beach and stops in on his way to work. When Makelke moved back to Lakeview from California in 1997, he was happy to find the diner still cooking. “It’s basically not like your chain restaurant,” Makelke said. “It goes back.”

Detective Vincent Pupo of the Town of Hamburg Police Department recalled going to the diner as a young boy for a hamburger and fries. Pupo, who grew up in Woodlawn, said his parents still live there today.

For Ries, it’s a way of life, and while he sold it last summer he still mans the griddle three days each week from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Watch him work and experience a symphony of sound – bacon sizzling, eggs cracking and the swoosh of an over-easy. Breakfast is served anytime, a blackboard reads.

“Sometimes you’re into it so much that it doesn’t seem like work. You enjoy it,” Ries said. “You get hyped and your adrenaline starts to flow. You psyche yourself up like an athlete.”

Ries and his wife sent two children to college and purchased a home in Florida, but two years ago they knew it was time to turn the diner over.

They found the right person sitting at the counter.

The next generation

Melissa Fisher Jenkins grew up in Salamanca before moving in 1999 to Buffalo, where she spent 11 years working at Tomatoes Pizza on Kensington Avenue at Harlem Road. Jenkins managed four Subway shops and stopped at the Woodlawn Diner either before or after her shift.

“We kind of clicked,” Ries recalled. “It didn’t take more than a month or two before I told her what I would like to see.” Jenkins grew up around cooking. Her mom cooked in the high school. Her uncle cooks at the Gin Mill in Ellicottville. Jenkins, who worked as a dishwasher and waitress, always told her husband how she wanted them to buy a diner.

In October 2014, Jenkins started working at the diner on a trial basis. “By January I left her alone running the place,” Ries said. “Last July, she and her husband purchased it. Missy followed in our footsteps. She’s keeping everything and she loves it.”

For Jenkins, owning a diner is a dream come true. “I never thought we would,” she said, standing at the griddle one hot morning. “Now if I could only get used to the hours.”

Finding Jenkins was like winning the lottery, according to Ries.

“It’s almost as if I needed to be pinched,” he said. “I’ve been here 30 years. Mary was here 50 years. One thing I’ve noticed from getting close with people, in the last so many years we started missing people who left. They’re gone. They died. So basically we’re ready for the next generation.”

email jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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