A server holds the door as the last customers of the day make their way to the parking lot; a few laughs and a “see you tomorrow” rise above the sound of spray bottles and clinking dishes. The scene has played on a 35-year loop for Linda D’Auria and her staff, but the door will soon lock for the last time as Linda’s Winter Park Diner, at 1700 W. Fairbanks Ave., will close at the end of July.
“When I bought the diner in 1988, Fairbanks was kind of like a country road,” said D’Auria, who had moved to Brevard County from New York and was looking to buy a business. “The real estate broker kept mentioning a diner he had available in Winter Park and I finally agreed to meet him there for coffee. Being used to New York-style diners, I was surprised by what I saw – and I actually liked it!”
After nearly four decades of early mornings and long weeks, D’Auria is looking forward to traveling and family time. She and her staff have kept the business strong and the customers fed despite economic turmoil, hurricanes, and a pandemic. “COVID was scary, and we’re still having issues with supplies and costs. But we help each other, we’re in it together.”
Employees have become a second family; many have been with D’Auria for decades and for most of them, her retirement does not come as a surprise. “They saw it coming,” she said. “It’s really bittersweet. We’ve been busy every day, people have been calling me, and there’s been a lot of media attention – obviously.”
Here, D’Auria takes a break to talk shop, retirement, and family.
What were the early years like? My family and I had some delis in New York, that was the extent of my food experience. I didn’t know anything about grits, sausage gravy and the other Southern-style dishes, but I came to learn them. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen during those early days; we were doing what we had to do to make it work. Back then, Fairbanks had maybe four restaurants and our parking lot was filled with pickup trucks with gun racks – a little different than what we were accustomed to.
Why do you think the diner is so popular? There are now probably 300 restaurants in Winter Park, but very few of them do what we do: home-cooked comfort food. We grew mostly through word of mouth and intense customer loyalty — many, many patrons have my personal cell number.
What do you love most about owning the diner? We’ve been a staple in the community for a long time. We’ve taken care of the police, the fire department; getting to be a real part of the Winter Park community is special. When Budweiser shot their “A Hero’s Welcome” Superbowl ad for a local serviceman, they filmed part of it at our diner. We’ve had many of Winter Park’s “who’s who” as loyal customers, but I’m not a name-dropper.
What do you not love so much? We’ve dealt with recessions over the course of 35 years, but nothing of the magnitude of COVID. I couldn’t believe it — the fear factor was incredible. But even through that, my chef reached out every week saying, “We can’t go out this way, we gotta come back.” And we did, but even now the shortages are still very real. Prices are way out there, and in my 35-year run I’ve never dealt with food prices like these. We served corned beef for St. Paddy’s Day, and if my chef told me what it cost we would not have sold it that day. But rather than jack up prices, I’ve tried to keep the cost reasonable and the food consistently good.
What inspired your decision to retire? Part of running the restaurant was out of necessity, because I had to take care of a little girl named Gina (my daughter), who is now grown up and has a fabulous husband and three children. The matriarch of my family, my sister, passed away very recently. The last year of her life she constantly asked me, “When are you going to have a life? When is it time to travel, enjoy, and not worry so much?” If I retired sooner, I might have had more time to spend with her. I’m ready to enjoy my friends, my family, and my grandchildren.
How did your customers handle the news? I had no idea (retiring) would be such a big deal. I had one of my customers read the Orlando Sentinel article at the counter and burst into tears. Another customer was upset with me that I wasn’t going to keep running the diner. He said, “I would have bought it if I knew!” The reaction from people has made me feel like tearing up every day. I’ve been thinking, maybe I should just open up something small, but I need to chill. It’s time for me to just have a little fun and enjoy.
Story by:Tate Fox and Jim Carchidi