Mel’s Diner is back in business.
The iconic local diner reopened its doors for business at 7 a.m. on Feb. 19 and according to owner Jerry Smith, since then it’s been “packed from open ‘til close” in spite of no advertising.
“I didn’t expect a whole lot considering it was reading week … but it was full the first day, as soon as they saw the ‘open’ sign. Which is great — they were anticipating our return,” Smith continued.
It’s been almost three years since Mel’s Diner, along with a number of local businesses located in the Campus Court plaza at 140 University Avenue, went down in flames. The devastating fire was determined to be arson after a police investigation, at the centre of which was a complex arrangement to pay off a drug debt and burn down Tabu nightclub that seemed straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster.
The fire was started when two men threw molotov cocktails into the windows of what was then Tabu Night Club. It eventually spread throughout the plaza. Details later emerged revealing that Brent Campbell — former owner of now-closed Titanium Nightclub in Uptown Waterloo — allegedly hired Daniel Campbell and William Schneider to burn down Tabu to eliminate competition in the bar scene.
Daniel Campbell and Schneider pleaded guilty to a number of charges, including arson, in November of 2011. Schneider was sentenced to eight years in prison, Daniel Campbell received seven. Brent Campbell is still facing charges.
After insurance complications were sorted out and the plaza was reconstructed, Smith was finally able to rebuild.
“It feels good,” said Smith. “It’s good to be able to trade in my construction shoes for some runners now. Done building, I just want to operate. Focus on the food quality and the customer service.”
Returning customers to Mel’s shouldn’t expect any major changes.
“I tried to keep it familiar,” Smith explained. “So you walk in and it feels like Mel’s did. And I think we did that. A lot of people are very impressed with how much the same it feels in here. That’s the real glue to the whole thing … is the memories.”
Customers have expressed satisfaction with the reconstruction thus far.
“It was nice to see they made it the same as before,” said local student and customer Beth Crouse. “It’s so iconic, at least to this area,” added Amanda Caputo, another student in the area.
Both agreed that the all day breakfast was their favourite feature.
The Diner’s late hours have traditionally been a main attraction, as it is open 24 hours Thursday to Saturday and until 10 p.m. the other nights of the week. Many students who frequented the diner may have graduated by now, however, raising questions about whether Mel’s will be able to re-attain its old popularity.
When asked if he thought the current student population has the same awareness of the eatery, Smith responded, “I think the awareness is there, whether they’re checking it out because they’ve heard so much about it over the last few years. They’re not here for nostalgia purposes, they’re here because it’s convenient and it’s hopefully very good. So it’s good to see new faces too.”
He expects to see more familiar faces now that students are back from reading week, as “it’s a short enough window that first and second-year students [at the time of the fire] still remember us, so we’re fortunate that way.”
“I would just say thanks to everybody for being there to support us at our return. It’s just been amazing,” Smith expressed.“I think it’s a community thing.”