Charlene Schultz, who owns Charlene's Diner in Jewett City, opens her doors at 4 a.m. The retirees who gather at that early hour drink coffee and eat breakfast, but what are they really there for? To talk, to socialize.
They show up shortly after Schultz opens her doors, pour their own coffee, put out the creamers and even wipe down tables, if necessary.
At Just Breakfast & Things!!!! in Lisbon, Mary Thompson drills her staff to create an atmosphere where everybody knows your name (just like the old TV show "Cheers," she says). Her waitresses greet the customers by name and Thompson remembers the food they order.
Juan Flores, at Joy's Restaurant on Route 32 in Norwich, is the new kid on the block. He's owned the cafe for only a few months and has retained its name and the decor - framed photos of the city's past.
In Preston, Parke's Place is a mini Town Hall - after all, owner Parke Spicer is a former first selectman - where locals socialize with the waitstaff or have a bite and do business on their cell phones.
Why do businessmen and retirees drive off the beaten path to the Norwich industrial park for coffee and breakfast? Because Jean Stott's small cafe, Stotts at Bat, rooted in a former cornfield, is a relaxed atmosphere for passionate political debate or a quick game of cribbage, if you're so inclined.
These restaurateurs work long and hard. They're up before the sun seven days a week, and four of the five cook the food as well as manage their businesses. They wait tables as well.
Flores, an immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, was 14 when he got his first job as a dishwasher in Manhattan. He worked his way up at delis and cafes, learning the grill, and eventually became a cook for Joy Chalifoux.
Jim Russell, 29, the cook at Parke's Place, and Charlene Schultz, were both 16 when they got work in cafes. Russell has been at Parke's nine years. Schultz and her husband, Gary, bought their diner in 1979. Thompson peeled potatoes in her mother's restaurant, The Coffee Pot, in Putnam, when she was a child. Stott stays after closing hours to do what she really loves: bake pies. Last year, the cafe sold 130 pies for Thanksgiving.
These are family enterprises. Flores' wife, Maria, son Pepe and daughter, Brenda, work with him. Schultz depends on her daughter, Susan Langlois, and other relatives. Stott's cousin, Dede Larkham, and niece, Megan Ferguson, are her staff; they all cook and wait on tables. Thompson considers her staff family, although they aren't blood related.
At Parke's, Spicer's daughters, Michelle Spicer and Donna Narik, work at the diner now run the day-to-day operations.
The restaurants share quirky decor. Charlene's walls are covered with vintage Coke signs, Saturday Evening Post covers and other items that customers have given her. Humor is part of the formula. "Order what you want, eat what you get" is posted at Charlene's.
There's a rather ornate "Same Day Service," sign at Parke's, and one of the photos above a booth shows a line of hefty folks on a bench with the caption: "The Spicer Family Tap Dance Company." Thompson has old photos of trains and a simple admonition, "Be Nice or Leave."
And then there's the food; good food, and lots of it.
Flores, a master of the New York diner's "endless menu," has a not-so-secret weapon: Maria. She cooks huevos rancheros, burritos, and Mexican omelets with jalapenos and avocado. This is authentic Mexican fare, rare in the Norwich area. On a recent visit we even sampled the Flores' menudo, a family staple.
Parke's popular pancakes are loaded with blueberries. Russell says he likes to make them unless he gets 20 orders at once. Michelle makes a weekend special: sausage gravy and biscuits, served with home fries and toast.
Charlene's menu features the "Hippo," so named because the eggs, meat and cheese between two pancakes "goes on your hips," Schultz says, laughing.
Stott likes the seasonal approach, offering 10-inch cinnamon pancakes with warm apple compote.
Thompson's stuffed French toast - from her mother's original dish - is artistic as well as tasty: egg-dipped thin-sliced toast arranged in diamond shapes on the plate, stuffed with cream cheese, bananas and strawberries with caramel dribbled on top.
Better than good, it's blissful.
At Charlene's, which moved down the street to 137 Main St., about eight years ago, the specialty is pancakes with fruit or chocolate chips and this time of year, pumpkin. Her son-in-law, Matt Langlois, who helps on Sundays, lobbies for peppermint stick and eggnog pancakes, but Charlene frowns when he mentions it.
Her French toast is thin-sliced bread sprinkled with cinnamon and served with warm syrup.
You have to like to work to run a business like Charlene's - she serves lunch every day but Monday. She's worked seven days a week for four years and can't see retiring any time soon.
Parke's Place hugs the side of Route 12 in Preston. Spicer opened the cafe 14 years ago and Russell, of Ledyard, has worked there nine years. Russell learned to cook helping his grandpa make breakfast on Christmas morning. Parke taught him, too, when he started at the cafe.
On a Sunday, one of the specials is Portuguese French Toast. The tasty oval-shaped sweet bread with raisins is dipped in egg and grilled.
Russell said they've felt the recession but even with the slow economy, people still go out to breakfast. His favorite dish? "Something someone else makes," he says, grinning.
Stotts at Bat, atop Plainhill Road in Norwich, started after Jean Stott built batting cages on her family's Mountain Ash Farm a year after Dodd Stadium opened across the road.
She sold hot dogs and ice cream to batting cage customers and within a short time added sandwiches. By 2008, she added on to the original store, opening for breakfast, lunch and fish and chips on Friday nights. The small dining room surrounded by windows looks out on hay and cornfields that were part of her family's farm.
"I had hoped to continue the dairy farm," Stott said. "But it's such hard work."
She works seven days a week at the cafe, which opens daily at 7 a.m.. She stays after hours to bake her pies. She and her staff will be ready for a break when the cafe closes for a couple of months on Dec. 24. It reopens in March.
On a recent Friday morning, three tables of men are drinking coffee inside the cafe. Two of them play cribbage but participate in a heated but cheerful political debate that raises the noise level in the small room. They're the Monday and Friday regulars.
The specials are sausage gravy and biscuits and 10-inch cinnamon pancakes with apple compote. The French toast is egg-dipped Texas toast slathered with cream cheese and covered in blueberry sauce.
The cooks get ideas from the Food Network on TV, Stott says, but they come up with their own take on recipes.
"We have lots of little secrets."