Danielle Catmull, manager of Janie’s, takes yet another order on a Wednesday afternoon. Catmull didn’t want to work for the restaurant when she was a teenager, but she eventually fell in love with the place. Dan England / for BizWest

Diners create a down home, family feel

When Danielle Catmull watched the staff at her grandmother’s cafe bust their hineys every day, she made a pact with herself: She did not want that life.

Janie Madewell had a great story by then. She was a waitress who quit her job at a greasy spoon to start her own down Main Street. Other waitresses and customers followed her, and Janie’s Cafe became a fixture of downtown Longmont, a place, like many diners, where you could get an affordable, fast, no-frills meal and hear a kind hello, probably followed by your name, if you came back. It was quaint and cute and homey, and Catmull, who began working there as a hostess when she was 11, wanted no part of it. Later, she even had a way out, a cosmetics job that paid well.

Yet at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, she parked herself at a booth in the cafe and flipped through receipts. The place was full, as it usually is even when it opens at 5 a.m., but this was a relatively quiet moment while she waited on hash browns and pancakes  for one of her customers. She loves her job, she said with a tired smile. She can take on eight tables at breakfast on Saturday because she knows what her customers want. The menu is the same as it was nearly 20 years ago when Madewell opened, save for a few gluten-free options, and Madewell herself still prepares the cabbage burgers and meatloaf. Catmull left that cosmetics job and now manages Janie’s. She is 32, and she is where she needs to be, even if the job is the same one that frightened her years ago.

Susana Montes chats with her nephew, Alberto Serrano, at Janie’s Cafe in downtown Longmont. The family discovered Janie’s years ago after her husband Lionel began going there before work. Now they go almost every day. Dan England / for BizWest

“Saturdays kick my ass,” Catmull said. “By the afternoon, I’m saying to myself, ‘Please, not one more customer.’ But I love the people here.”

Those people include the guy on his 14th year cooking those hash browns, or the waitresses, some of them the same who followed Madewell to her cafe, or the longtime regulars, such as the Montes family in Longmont. Lionel Montes was working on street renovations downtown for a concrete company, and after he discovered Janie’s tasty bottomless coffee, he would show up at 5 a.m., an hour before his shift, and enjoy the warmth before another hard day. He took his family there for breakfast on the weekends, and now they go nearly every day.

“I like that it’s a hole in the wall,” said Susana, Lionel’s wife, who uses the term as a compliment. “The food is delicious. The green chili is amazing. People say to me, ‘You’re Mexican, why would you go to a place like Janie’s? But the burritos are delicious.”

Susana and her family don’t like to go anywhere else, in fact, and that includes extended family such as her nephew, Alberto Serrano, who is attending Front Range Community College. Whenever his family visited from California, they would go to Janie’s as well.

“When this is closed we are bummed,” Susana said. “We can sit here and drink coffee and chat. It feels like home.”

That’s the kind of feel that cafes across Northern Colorado sell along with the comfort food, and the concept has worked for decades. Johnson’s Corner, known for its internationally known cinnamon rolls as big as a pothole, is as much of a tourist attraction as it is a truck stop. There’s the Sugar House in Eaton and the Mountain Cafe in Fort Collins and the Loveland Breakfast Club. Places such as Perkin’s, Denny’s and Village Inn have also proved that you can be a diner and a chain at the same time.

To that end, there’s Doug’s Diner in downtown Greeley, part of a growing line, with other locations in Fort Collins, Boulder and Centennial. The co-owners, Rick Bruening and his fiancé, Linda Hernandez, added Thornton and Arvada in 2018 and Windsor this year. They will open a spot in Parker in November. All Doug’s diners are a bit different from each other, Bruening said, with Colorado State decor in Fort Collins and Buffalo items in Boulder, but they all attempt to model the feel of a small-town diner.

“The secret is good food and good service,” he said. “It’s just basic stuff, with a simple menu and delicious food. But we also wanted a place where everyone knows everyone. It’s a ‘Cheers’ thing,” he said, referencing the popular TV show that starred Ted Danson.

Bruening admits he didn’t know what they were looking for, only that they wanted to open a restaurant after decades working in the fast-food industry, including McDonalds and Taco Bell, where they met. When they learned the Doug’s franchise was for sale, the restaurant tickled his background of growing up in small-town Nebraska and gorging on biscuits and gravy and hotcakes.

“We fell in love with the idea,” he said.

Some people aim for it, and others just come by it naturally, such as Country Inn in downtown Greeley. Country Inn burned down nearly four years ago after George and Evelyn Gatsiopoulos owned it for decades.

When the Inn burned, George thought about leaving it be. He still owned the Paragon with Evelyn, even if she ran things there, But he thought about his staff, some of whom had been there since they were teenagers, and he felt responsible for them. So he rebuilt, and though the place looks more modern, it’s still decorated like a home.

“We tried not to lose what we had before,” George said. “Whether it was a millionaire or a bum off the street,  customer comfort is more important than anything else. If they feel as if they are stuck up, that could hurt our business. It wouldn’t have taken much more money to upgrade, but I didn’t want it to be overbearing.”

He is considering adding dinner, if he can hire the staff for it, because even though he did rebuild, he’s still 66 and feeling it. Plus his offerings fit his customers.

“We don’t try to sell a $20 steak,” he said. “We don’t have executives and that’s OK.”

He is a good cook, even a chef at times. His hash browns are a delicacy, not just a side dish, and were often requested by customers who went to the Paragon after Country Inn burned. But he knows his niche. The Paragon, he said, and its Greek-influenced menu allows for more experimentation.

“We serve comfort food here,” he said.

He doesn’t want to retire, he said, because he can control the restaurant business, as volatile as it may be, not the stock market. He knows his customers, and they know him. He knows he would miss that.

“Every time I’d drive by, I would be saying I made a mistake,” he said. “What else am I going to do? This is my home.”

If you go

Janie’s Cafe

431 Main St, Longmont, CO 80501

janies-cafe.com

 

When Danielle Catmull watched the staff at her grandmother’s cafe bust their hineys every day, she made a pact with herself: She did not want that life.

Janie Madewell had a great story by then. She was a waitress who quit her job at a greasy spoon to start her own down Main Street. Other waitresses and customers followed her, and Janie’s Cafe became a fixture of downtown Longmont, a place, like many diners, where you could get an affordable, fast, no-frills meal and hear a kind hello, probably followed by your name, if you came back. It was quaint and cute and homey, and Catmull, who began working there as a hostess when she was 11, wanted no part of it. Later, she even had a way out, a cosmetics job that paid well.

Yet at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, she parked herself at a booth in the cafe and flipped through receipts. The place was full, as it usually is even when it opens at 5 a.m., but this was a relatively quiet moment while she waited on hash browns and pancakes  for one of her customers. She loves her job, she said with a tired smile. She can take on eight tables at breakfast on Saturday because she knows what her customers want. The menu is the same as it was nearly 20 years ago when Madewell opened, save for a few gluten-free options, and Madewell herself still…