Amy Russo Harrigan in the newly opened Toast, housed in the former Broadway Diner on Monmouth Street. Below, an ad for the original Palace Diner that appeared in the Red Bank Register in 1945. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
From outside, the neon-and-stainless-steel trimmed building at 45 Monmouth Street in Red Bank still looks like the classic diner it was for most of the past 70 years. The sign over the front door even proclaims “City Diner” under the new name.
But to the chagrin of some hardcore nostalgics, and to the delight others, Toast, which opened earlier this month, is not a mere rebranding of the Broadway Diner, which occupied the railcar-style building for 18 years.
In an interview with redbankgreen at a table near the back door of the restaurant this week, Toast owner Amy Russo Harrigan spoke for the first time about the emotional and arduous process of transforming a business that her father, Rocco ‘Bob’ Russo, and his longtime partner, Rocky Coviello, opened in 1996.
The Broadway Diner was “iconic,” and its closing leaves “a void in the town,” Russo Harrigan acknowledged. But while the 24-hour business model is “great for a very small number of people,” it’s not necessarily so for the owners, particularly in small downtowns like Red Bank’s. Factor in the sparse use of tables for long stretches of the day, the paltry profit margins on pancakes and eggs, and the cost of security to ensure the safety of the bar-break crowd, and it’s tough to eke out a profit, she said.
Russo Harrigan, who launched a Toast restaurant in Montclair in 2007 and followed four years later with a second one in Asbury Park, began talking with her father several years ago about converting the Broadway to a third branch of her business. But Coviello wasn’t on board with the idea, she said.
“I don’t blame him,” she said. “He knew what he knew, which was 24-hour diners and catering halls, and I knew what I knew. We didn’t see eye-to-eye.”
The trio was in the process of negotiating “who would buy out who” when Bob Russo died in February, 2014 after a three-week illness. That set off a series of “very hard estate questions” about disentangling ownership of diners and catering operations in Red Bank, Toms River, Summit, Bayonne and elsewhere, she said.
In the end, a deal was reached under which Russo Harrigan would buy the Broadway and Coviello would buy all the other businesses. But in order for her to take title, she said, Coviello had to first close the diner. Which he did, abruptly and without notice, on a Monday morning in July, 2014, setting off a firestorm of criticism, not only about the treatment of the diner’s employees, but about the impact on the culture of Red Bank itself.
Russo Harrigan took the brunt of many of those comments for her presumed involvement in the closing, but remained on the sidelines, mum, not wanting to step on the toes of a man she said she regards “almost like an older brother.”
“Did he do it correctly? He didn’t do it the way I would have done it,” she told redbankgreen, seated at a table near the restaurant’s back door. “But I will never talk badly about him. Never. He did it the way that he thought it needed to be done. He worked with those people. I didn’t.”
She then embarked on a gut-job remodeling of the building, which dated back to 1940, when it opened as the Palace Diner and served as the Szechuan Wok restaurant in the 1980s before reverting to diner use after a remodeling by Coviello and her father.
The work turned out to be far more complicated and frustrating than anticipated, Russo Harrigan said, in part because of difficulties with concrete and epoxy flooring that had to be ripped out and redone several times.
But contrary to some comments on social media, she wants it known, the 14-month “terrible buildout” had nothing whatsoever to do with rumored obstacles put up by the town. Borough officials offered “nothing but support” in every office of town hall, she said, singling out inspector John Drucker for giving her his cellphone number and patiently explaining everything she needed to do.
The end result, the product of a collaboration with Asbury Park designer Jana Manning, is a gleaming interior of curved-formica ceilings and table jukeboxes familiar to diner denizens, but one softened by neutral hues in place of the Broadway’s pulsing pinks. The vibe is more 1940’s luncheonette than classic diner, Russo Harrigan said.
And so far, she said, this Toast is off to the strongest start by far of her three restaurants. There had yet to be a moment when the place was empty, she said.
The youngest of six children who grew up in Rutherford and is now mother to three of her own, Russo Harrigan was steeped in the diner business as child, but learned to cook at the elbow of her Italian maternal grandmother, and was soon nudging aside her Irish-American mother from the stove, showing her the proper way to bread a chicken cutlet.
After graduating from Fairleigh Dickinson University, Russo Harrigan worked in the fragrance industry in a job that required a lot of travel, and would often find herself yearning for “home, tea and toast,” she said.
After a five-year stint as a stay-at-home mom, she opened Toast in Montclair on a simple premise: give breakfast the respect it deserves.
“I treat my breakfast like most people treat their dinner,” she said. “I take it very seriously. There’s tarragon with the eggs Benedict — not because it looks good on the plate, but because it imparts flavor. And it’s only fresh tarragon. We dry it, we do everything. Our hollandaise is made fresh daily, There’s no powdered anything.”
Though she regards herself as “one of the most average people I know,” Russo Harrigan insists that customers be able to get eggs Benedict any time they want, rather than only on special occasions or at higher-end restaurants.
“I don’t do diners,” she said. The 7:30 a.m.-to-3 p.m. schedule of her restaurants was structured to allow her to be home at night to make dinner for her kids. “If I went all night, and tried to be all things to all people? I don’t know how to do that,” she said.
The one exception: Russo Harrigan said she has applied for a FEMA grant to buy a generator for the Red Bank Toast. Under the the terms of the grant, she would be required to keep the place open 24 hours a day in the an emergency.
“I actually really like to be open in emergencies,” she said. “It’s my motto that if I can get to that location, we’re open.”
“It’s going to be missed,” she said of the old diner. “But Toast is filling the void from to 7:30 to 3 p.m. Somebody else can fill the late-night eats.”