It's a sweltering hot Tuesday afternoon and B's Diner owners Brenda Der and her husband Bob Ziniak are sipping bottles of water in their Whyte Avenue restaurant. The diner is closed for the day and eerily quiet aside from Molly and Penny, two pug puppies rolling around at their feet. “What you see is what you get,” Der says.
What you see are walls plastered in colourful posters drawn by children, an indicator of a lively restaurant and the couple's immense passion for community involvement. Co-owner and cook Der has also taken on the role of counsellor to the countless people who come to her casual diner for a hot meal, a hug or conversation.
This intimate connection with customers is what separates Edmonton's family-owned restaurants from the franchises.
The unassuming restaurant has been in business since 2002, switching locations once, but always remaining on the same block of 100 Street. The couple has been together since 1997 and is busy everyday, with Der cooking a variety of German, Asian, Ukrainian and Polish dishes alongside traditional diner favourites. Ziniak serves his wife's homestyle cooking, often cracking jokes with customers in his thick Eastern European accent. The pair is infectiously positive—an attitude that has gotten them through some tough times.
The diner closed for a few months after Der's 20-year-old son drowned on a camping trip in 2010. Her voice catches in her throat as she recalls this event.
“It was just the beginning for him,” she says, staring off onto the front patio. His death was hard on the family and the restaurant, and the diner's closed doors led Der and Ziniak into a financial crisis they are still struggling to deal with. But making money was never the ultimate goal of the diner. Since her son's death, Der has committed to using her restaurant to feed and support the community—particularly children and the homeless.
She runs a lunch program for Grade 5 students at St Richard Catholic School. The children learn how to make nutritious lunches and deliver them to three other schools. The program is something Der is immensely proud of.
“A restaurant is a restaurant,” Der says, and the diner is so much more than an eatery—it's a way for one family to connect with others in the community. “[It's] because of the loss of my son, I wanted to carry him on with me and have that energy to keep giving,” she explains.
Der says her restaurant has had “a second chance” since her son's death, and she wants to extend that opportunity to the area's homeless community as well. Der and Ziniak will provide a meal or even their home to anyone in need. One particularly cold winter, the couple welcomed five members of the homeless community into their Mill Woods home. Der gave them daily chores and, deflecting the attention from herself as she often seems to do, said the experience was “really good for them.” She mentions the homeless community watches out for the restaurant when it is closed and that her former house guests will often come by for breakfast when they have money saved up.
Unlike many chain restaurants, the couple don't feel the need to compete for business. With customers that become family, it's no longer just a diner.
“I still think that you should help one another. If somebody ran out of something they needed and came here, I would give it to them,” Der says. “We're all in the same business.”
Further down Whyte Avenue near Bonnie Doon Mall, Daniel Mazzotta is busy cooking up traditional Italian pastas and pizzas in his busy kitchen. Alongside his mother Frances and father Jim, Daniel and his three brothers Andre, Jason and David opened Ragazzi (Italian for “boys”) Bistro Italiano 12 years ago. The restaurant is filled with pictures of the Mazzotta family in Italy, symbolizing an attachment to their Italian roots and commitment to each other.
Daniel always knew he had a future in the restaurant business. Proudly donning his clean white monogrammed chef's coat, he fondly recalls playing “pizza shop” with his brothers as a child, and the Sunday dinners at which attendance was strictly enforced by his Italian-born dad. It was at these dinners that the family connected, conversed and also fought, but which ultimately led Daniel to appreciate the importance of food and family—and the families that now visit his restaurant.
“People picking our place to share their most intimate moments, to us, is probably the greatest compliment,” he says with a smile. “The clanging of the plates, people talking and laughing in the background … it's like opera. It's like music to your ears, it truly is.”
Daniel often leaves the kitchen to chat with diners tucking into massive plates of spaghetti and tiramisu, his mom's specialty. Like Der and Ziniak, the Mazzotta family believes in making personal connections with diners that extend beyond the restaurant. This is an experience that can't come from a franchise establishment, he says, and one that proves the value of Edmonton's family-owned restaurants.
“People that come here, most of them know us by name. They've seen us grow, and you can't duplicate that kind of thing,” he says.
“That's what people love about family restaurants, to feel like part of the family.”