By Chris Mohney
All Zagat Stories are written by our editorial team. This story is presented by our partner Chase Sapphire®.
Through the difficulties of the past year, restaurants have been there for their communities. They’ve pivoted to takeout, provided meals to essential workers, and so much more. The Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contest is awarding $50,000 business grants from Chase Sapphire to 20 small-business restaurants across America to provide COVID-19 pandemic recovery assistance. Zagat Stories is featuring interviews with all of our Sapphire Supports Restaurants Contests grant recipients.
Eliot Mosby is the owner of Montclair Diner in Montclair, New Jersey.
I grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. Later I was an executive at United Airlines. I ended up walking away from United and decided to pursue my dream. I always wanted to be on the East Coast—I love the East Coast, but I really love New Jersey. It’s nostalgic for me—it reminds me of my childhood growing up. You see families being families. You see kids being kids, riding their bikes, doing things that kids do.
My sister has three locations of a restaurant in Atlanta—Harold’s Chicken and Ice Bar. They’re Chicago staples because we’re from Chicago. I watched her struggle, but I also watched the independence she had as an entrepreneur. And also, I love food. I’m an extreme foodie.
I acquired Montclair Diner in May of 2019 from a guy who owned the restaurant for over 30 years. He had built up a really good relationship with the community. It was me and my executive chef coming in and trying to make people know they were still going to get the same love, the same good food that they were getting before, along with some new items that we’ve added to the menu. It was a good vibe, very community-oriented. I had owned the restaurant not even a year before the pandemic hit.
It was on a Sunday that the news was breaking. We’re normally packed on Sundays. That day, we saw a huge decline in our customers coming through the door, and then Monday was like a ghost town. We really weren’t into doing deliveries in-house. We had added Uber Eats, but didn’t have any of the other third-party delivery platforms.
We switched our model from being 96 percent in-house dining to basically zero in-house dining and a pure delivery model. The servers delivered, I delivered, the chef delivered. We added Grubhub. We already had Uber Eats. We went to family-style meals because I realized that because we’re a diner, we can do breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We offered families meals at a reduced rate so it was economical for them. We didn’t have customers coming in, but we could at least go to our customers and show them that we’re still here, we’re still open, we’re here for them.
We have an alleyway that’s right next to the restaurant. We had been talking about extending our outdoor dining from just the front of the restaurant, which our customers were used to, and really incorporating that alleyway. So when it was permitted later, we really did take advantage of that. We livened up the alleyway. There’s a mural there and bricks. We added some of those Edison lights above it. We partnered with a local jazz band and started offering live music every Sunday just to add life back into the community.
The expanded outdoor dining and live jazz was supposed to last for the worst of the pandemic, but it’s still going to this day. We’re continuing it as a kind of new tradition. We’ve expanded it to include other types of artists as well—we have jazz, we have R&B, we have folk, we have guest DJs that come out.
What kept me going was my staff. I know that my team worked really hard. My executive chef Gus Moya has been an integral part of our success. Even though it hadn’t been a year, we had developed very close bonds with each other. So the biggest piece for me was making sure that I was there for my team. For the first few weeks, I stopped paying myself because I wanted to make sure that they were OK. Those are just the sacrifices that you make when you have a business. We did reduce our hours, but we never closed down. We serve a lot of older people who don’t have their kids here with them, so we wanted to make sure that we also stayed open for the community.
I’ve been a member of 100 Black Men of Chicago and New York and part of Big Brothers, Big Sisters. It’s just something that’s always been inside me. Even when I was an executive in corporate America, I always made sure that my team knew the importance of giving back to the community. It’s always been a part of my DNA.
When things got very bleak in the pandemic, it reaffirmed what I felt about the community to see them trying to give a helping hand to those less fortunate and to the hospital workers—not just in the affluent areas, but also specifically in Black and brown communities. I saw people in the community, as well as family and friends, really come through and help support us. I had friends from high school that I hadn’t spoken to in years that had been following my story via social media reach out, saying, “Hey, how can I help? I see what you’re doing. I’m very proud of you and the work that you’re doing.”
We have customers that existed before I acquired the restaurant, and now I have my own relationships with them. The old owner was old-school Greek and very set in his ways. He believed that there’s a certain way to do things. The thing I had to get across to him was that his relationships with his customers were his relationships. My relationship with them will have to be the relationship that we forge with each other.
When I acquired the place, the previous owner stayed on for the first eight months. He was older, and this was the only thing that he had. So I told him, “Hey, come on in for two or three days out of the week if you like.” He needed that, and I was OK with that. Within those eight months, he was able to see that what I said was true. He had his relationship with them, and now I had created my own relationship with them. I wanted him to see that he made the right decision. He actually got quite a few offers for his place, but he went with my offer. I think he saw the family dynamic that I value during those first eight months where he was still there at the restaurant.
I’m proud of my executive chef Gus Moya, the servers, the cooks, and the entire team. I was really proud to see how they were able to be agile and adjust to the new norm. Everything that we tried worked, and it showed our resilience as a team. There were many days where it was dead, and we were watching Netflix and Hulu. But the fact is that we made it through, and we’re on the other side, and we’re carrying on some of our new traditions that are now part of our restaurant and our culture.