John Kanaras was only a year old when his father opened a diner on the corner of Sunrise Highway and Central Avenue in Baldwin in 1964.
His dad, Peter Kanaras, and his two partners, Tommy Matthews and George Tsotsos, had emigrated from Greece and decided it was time to make a go of it in business. They saved enough money, deposited a down payment, took over from the previous owner — who was also Greek — and got to work.
John Kanaras, 56, was passed the reins when his father died in March. There has been a diner on the corner since at least 1938, he said.
“Bacon and eggs has been a staple here for a long time,” he said. “When the old man started getting sick, they needed someone to fill his role. He was a great guy — a staple of the community.”
Kanaras said his father was very involved with the local community, including the schools and houses of worship. “He put his roots here,” he said, “and shopped local when he could.”
John Kanaras and his wife, Penny, said they make a point to patronize local businesses, and encourage others to do so.
“We got to support our own,” Kanaras said. “The people that live here pay the taxes here, their kids go to school here — it’s important. If you spend a few cents more on an item, so? Because that guy is going to save you a lot more if he goes out. Then that [business] goes off the tax roll and ends up costing you a lot more.”
“Local business is huge, and we support local businesses,” Penny said.
Kanaras now runs the eatery with Penny, and his sister and brother-in-law, Trissy and Ricky Navas. Kanaras calls his sister “the Queen of Darkness” because she’s on the night shift. Their autistic brother, Stevie, helps, too, as well as Kanaras’s step-mother, Maro Ellinas, nephews Nick and Alex Navas, and cousins Donielle and Eileen. The family-owned business marks its 55th anniversary this year.
“Families for years have been coming through,” Kanaras said. “We’re in second and third generations with some families, which is pretty cool, watching the kids grow up, and then they get married and they have kids. Now you have three generations at the table.”
He said the diner sees a core group of patrons come through regularly. “Some people we see two or three times a day,” he said. “It’s a good crowd. We’re blessed.”
Many of the employees have been with the business for decades. Some of the most popular dishes that the diner offers include the cheeseburger deluxe, chicken souvlaki, waffles, pancakes and seasonal treats like pumpkin muffins.
And while Kanaras, Penny and Trissy are at the diner practically every day, Stevie gets a day off.
“We welcome everybody here,” Kanaras said. “We understand special needs. It’s not an issue. People got to get out, especially with special needs. It’s hard to find a place that’s welcoming.”
Some patrons described the uncomfortable experiences they have had in other places trying to sit down to eat, he said, adding that he wouldn’t shame people like that.
“We’re more welcoming and all-inclusive,” Kanaras said. “If someone can’t handle it, we’ll move them, and if they don’t want to come back because of that, sorry we lost your business, but those people are welcome. We welcome everybody.”
Penny agreed. “It doesn’t matter if they throw things on the floor. We understand because we have it in our family, and it’s OK,” she said. “They’re still people. And you have to give to all kinds of people — they still have to eat.”
Penny recalled her start with the business. She worked at the diner in the 1980s, left, and years later, linked with Kanaras on Facebook, and they got together. They married about seven years ago.
“It’s my family,” she said of the Baldwin Coach Diner. “It’s a staple in the neighborhood — everyone can come here. It doesn’t matter if you’re alone, because you’re never alone. It’s a very warm place to work. It’s warm and it’s inviting, and we love our people.”
She said it was tough when Peter died, but the family carries on his legacy at the diner.
“I miss him terribly,” Penny said. “But it’s our restaurant, and we keep it going as much as we can, and I love being here.”
Bill Marmo and his son, two regular guests, said they have patronized the diner for years because they like John and Penny.
“We got a house here in ’77, so we’ve been coming since then,” said Steve Berg, a Freeport resident and regular visitor. “My grandmother used to come here. She lived in Rockville Centre.”
But Berg said it’s the people who keep him coming back. “There’s another diner in Freeport — fancy shmancy,” he said. “We like this place. We like the people who work here, like family.”
“The cakes are good,” Butch West, Berg’s friend, said. “I just had a slice of the lemon coconut cake. It’s delicious — it’s very moist. So I bought two: one for my church and one for the Hispanic church that’s next door to us a couple of weeks ago.”
Another group, from a local congregation, said they meet at the diner every Thursday night for dinner. And whether it’s the weekly Thursday evening group, or the three-times-a-day regulars, the diner bustles with people hungry for bacon and eggs.
“Thanks for being our guests over the 55 years,” Kanaras said. “They’re good people. Ninety-nine-point-eight percent of the customers are fantastic. The .2 percent give me the best stories because they’re morons, but most people are just wonderful. They make it easy. We love you all. It’s been a great ride, and it’s still going.”