A young busboy dressed in black wipes down Deluxe Luncheonette’s glass entrance where within the same week, two paper signs were posted by management: one on Monday, November 30th, 2015 to announce the diner’s sudden closure, and another three days later to announce that it would reopen December 5th, “due to the overwhelming support shown by our loyal patrons.”
The 50s retro-style American diner located at Broadway between 112th and 113th Street has been in business since 1999, and is one of 17 restaurants across New York State owned by two groups; Chef Driven and Tour de France NYC. The landlord, Columbia University, manages over 460,000 square feet of leased space, part of which runs along Broadway between 103rd and 148th Street.
At 8 a.m., the day of the reopening, two waitresses greet guests with nervous smiles, as bussers rush cartons of milk through the front door. The tables are readied with napkins and cutlery. William Kane, a slight 25-year-old server, with dark blonde curly hair and blue eyes, apologizes for the broken coffee machine.
“It’s a little suspect that they closed and reopened. It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said, referring to management’s explanation that patrons brought Deluxe back. “I don’t think I believe that.”
Three staff left after Monday’s closure. Roy Koh, a server with Deluxe for over a decade, was promoted to replace one of the lost managers. He explains that the owners wanted to close temporarily for repairs and to create a new concept that would boost slumping profits, but did so without a permit from the landlord. Columbia University notified owners of the agreement breach and potential eviction if Deluxe remained closed without the permit. What followed was the immediate decision to reopen.
“We don’t know what happens next. It probably won’t close again, but there are changes to the menu,” says Koh, the mid-aged hipster with glasses and a low ponytail fastened beneath his fedora.
Kane says that staff first learned of a mandatory meeting scheduled for the morning of November 30th, three weeks earlier, when it was posted inside the restaurant, but he didn’t expect the bad news. That Monday he came in at 7:30 a.m., his usual time, and set up the tables.
Eugene Johnson, a server from Brooklyn, usually has Mondays off, but was told that if he missed the meeting he would lose his job. “Karen [the manager who left after the closure] didn’t waste any time. She basically said: ‘As you know, Deluxe isn’t doing so well. We have some bad news, we’re closing,’” he says.
Rashad Carter, the other Deluxe manager, says that within the last two years, Deluxe -- like many restaurants in Manhattan -- has struggled to remain profitable, with increased competition in the neighborhood and growing operating expenses such as higher rent, insurance, and the shipping of supplies. A 2014 Zagat survey found that restaurant closings in the city nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014, primarily due to steep rent increases.
“There was a need to make a change. Customer preference has changed; more people are vegetarians, vegans, have gluten-free diets. Deluxe hasn’t kept up,” says Carter. “But somebody somewhere jumped the gun.”
Carter points to a large picture on the wall of a row of densely positioned bar stools that stretch infinitely into the horizon, to describe how he feels during $12 weekend brunches, when the flow of customers seems endless. Evening and weekday attendance is much lower, he says, and there are often empty seats. The poised, 41 year-old, actor was a pre-show waiter at a Times Square diner before joining Deluxe, where he has been on and off for 13 years.
During the week of the closure, Carter received around 35 calls from guests. His mouth ran dry repeating the same message that Deluxe shut down in order to reopen as something new, but the response, he says, was clear: “We want Deluxe back.”
Fran Althaus, a regular customer, has eaten at Deluxe several times per week for years. “I would be very upset if they closed it down,” she smiles.
Two young men in Columbia University Athletics hoodies walk in, sit down at the bar in front of Sheldon Foskin, an athletically built 25-year-old bartender from the Bronx, and order without a menu. Jesse Foglia and Emerson Curry are rowing coaches at Columbia who eat frequently at Deluxe because of the good food and affordable prices.
“Why did you guys close?” Foglia asks Foskin.
“I couldn’t tell you man, but shit went down real fast,” he laughs.
“Well I’m glad you’re back,” replies Foskin.