‘We’re homey; we want people to feel like they aren’t just a customer’
By Alison Rooney
Unlike the faux-retro diners which sprout in suburbia, attempting to look like long-entrenched bastions of Americana, Beacon’s Yankee Clipper (YC) is the real deal. The eatery on the corner of Teller and Main opened in 1946 looking not all that dissimilar to its appearance today. Its door moved a bit to the left to accommodate a ramp, the lettering now a bit more Deco-30s than breezy, confident post-war 40s, nonetheless the visual appeal of the multi-windowed, modest chrome and red exterior which belies a spacious interior, is intact.
Named after the Boeing B-314 “flying boat” planes developed for trans-Atlantic travel, the initial Clipper service was devoted to mail flights and the first passenger service on that route was inaugurated by Pan American Airlines in 1939.
The YC’s owners, Tonia and Petros Petsas, considered changing the name when they took over the diner in 2003, but decided against it (they have since been joined in co-ownership by Tonia’s sister Katina and her husband Nikos Pertesis). At that time the YC had been vacant and derelict, following a 1998 fire. According to Tonia, after its heyday in the ‘40s and ‘50s the diner fell into a decline. With its contributing problems: poor word of mouth.
For the past decade, the family, with long prior experience in the diner trade, has been working to revitalize the YC into a community cornerstone, and today business is nonstop, early in the morning until late at night. They’re open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m. They serve a mix of regulars and tourists, with a philosophy of “we wish everyone had a diner like this to grow up with,” says Tonia.
Tonia and Katina grew up in Buchanan, and then moved to Mahopac, their family going back to their grandparents having long worked in the diner business. Petros, who, like his brother-in-law hails from the small Greek island of Andros (and it is a complete coincidence that they married sisters, as they were only passing acquaintances back home), had worked on cruise ships, and learned the restaurant trade after moving to New York. After working for others, the Petsases relocated to Oneonta, where Petros was working in coffee sales when he stumbled upon this location. With their years of experience running diners, they took the plunge.
“It was just me and him, seven days a week, in the beginning, even though our children were little — 7 years old and 20 months, when we started,” Tonia recalls (now both girls help out in the diner). Soon, they asked Katina and Nikos to join in with them, a partnership that has provided “a little more of a life,” says Tonia. Not that she regards spending time at YC as something onerous. “This is my life,” she says. “I don’t ‘go to work’ — I don’t look at it that way. You’re in my house. I get excited when I bring people their plates. The best part is when they love it. You get that energy. We’re not going to be millionaires from this but we pay our bills and love our life.”
Buckets of batter
Work or not, the labor begins at 5 a.m. every day. Much is done by hand at YC. Buckets of pancake batter (eight different kinds) are made, potatoes are chopped, and chicken stock is prepared from scratch. So are the rice and bread puddings, and all their sauces. There’s a small kitchen on the other side of the counter, with multiple cooking stations.
“The guy in the middle has to coordinate everything,” explains Tonia. “It’s a hard job because you can get just one table’s order and it’ll be, say, one oatmeal, one poached eggs, one turkey club and one steak, well-done, and he has to time it exactly right so that they’re all served at the same time.”
Underneath the restaurant there’s a large, highly organized pantry with freezer rooms. Tonia has never actually done a customer count, but the YC seats 97 and there are frequent occasions, including most Sundays, when every seat is filled. There’s that diner staple: an extensive menu, and deliveries bring a spate of ingredients in three times a week. Asked how it is possible to keep so many varying components in stock, Tonia says simply, “You know what you sell and when you sell it, and you’ve got to be highly organized, and that comes from experience.”
Specials are offered each day of the week, and there are regulars who turn up on Thursdays for corned beef and cabbage or Fridays for the macaroni and cheese. Tonia notes: “One party has been coming in here every Friday night for 11 years for the pot roast, potato pancakes and strawberry shortcake.”
In fact, doing business the old-fashioned way is a key to YC’s success. Tonia pulls out an address book — a paper one, not a smartphone — and in it she has name after name and that person’s favorite. She phones them when that item is making an appearance. Sometimes she doesn’t even know the full name, and there are notations like “locksmith – cream of potato soup.” It’s that kind of service. “I’ll get people who will ask me ‘Can you save me two? I’ll be there tomorrow.’ And we do, because it’s all about listening to the customers. When they come to us it’s a whole package — I want them to come because of us, and because of our staff. We build relationships here.”
Many of the 15 staff members have been with them for years. “We care,” Tonia says. “I want to know your name. We walk around the restaurant all the time, talking to our customers. We know our ‘counter contingent’ — the customers who only sit there. Our children are all working here. We get invites to things all the time from our customers: weddings, funerals. Basically we want people to feel like they aren’t just a customer — we’re homey.”
Photos (2) courtesy of the Yankee Clipper