I’ve eaten a lot of breakfasts in my time — hell, it must be approaching 20,000 by now — and few if any have equaled those consumed at Coleen’s Kitchen on Main Street in the lived-in Erie Canal village of Brockport, New York.
It takes a few minutes before you sense that there’s something not quite wrong about Coleen’s. Upon entering the restaurant you pour your own coffee at the beverage station. Maître d’ Coleen directs you to your seat. She hands you the extensive four-page menu, which warns that ‘you will be charged 59 cents if you ask what kind of bread I have’. Read it well and don’t waste Coleen’s time, you lazy bum!
Waitress Coleen takes your order. She repairs to the grill, where chef Coleen whips up your omelet, scramble or stack of pan- cakes and then brings it to your table. When you’re done eating she will hand you your check. You walk to the register and cashier Coleen takes your money. After you depart Coleen will bus your table and wash your dishes, all while tending to as many as 20 other patrons seated in the six booths and at the counter.
First-timers don’t quite believe what they’re seeing. It’s as if they’ve gone to a baseball game and the same guy is pitching, catching, batting and taking tickets.
At every booth Coleen posts ‘Rules to Eat By.’ They’re not just ha-ha cutesy. To paraphrase Johnny Rotten, she means it, man.
1. DEVICES: Please silence all devices. If you must take a call, please step outside — the restroom is not a phone booth.
2. CHILDREN: Please silence loud and misbehaving children. If you are unable to do that, please take them outside.
3. LANGUAGE: Believe it or not, most of us don’t use the word F**K in casual conversation in public. Please show some respect for the people around you.
4. VOLUME: You’d think the phrase ‘please use your inside voice’ would only be necessary for small children. Sadly, this is not the case. Once again, please consider the people around you, including myself.
DO YOU SENSE A THEME?
The only rule necessary should be: PLEASE BE CONSIDERATE OF OTHERS. If this is unacceptable to you, there is a lovely diner right down the street. Thank you, Coleen.
P.S. NO WHISTLING!
My wife, who has an auditory system as sensitive as that of Roderick Usher, loves these rules, and despite my outdoor voice and regrettably frequent recourse to profanity I’m a fan, too. Cell-phone honkers and f-bombardiers compare her to Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, but in Coleen Dwyer, 56, you can still see the spirited girl from Auburn, New York who at 17 ran away to New York City.
Over a plate of raspberry-peach pancakes I chat with Coleen. She tells me that she learned to bake at Wegmans, the noted Rochester grocery chain, before she and her husband, who runs Shag’s Record Emporium up the street, moved to Brockport in 1997. Four years later she opened Coleen’s Café, which she redubbed Coleen’s Kitchen because ‘people would come in and say what kind of café doesn’t have espresso or put lemon in your water?’
She hired girls from Brockport State College as part-timers for a while, but when the economy took a dive in 2008 she decided to make this a one-woman operation.
Coleen turns on the lights in her kitchen at 4 a.m. and ends the workday taking out the trash at 2:30 p.m. She makes whatever she can from scratch: bagels, five kinds of bread, corned beef hash. At 6 the regulars, mostly retirees and folks on their way to work, start coming by. The college people, who comprise perhaps half her clientele, file in mid-morning. She approves of the young ‘uns: ‘they’re nice and polite and thoughtful. They speak to adults better than generations before,’ especially Generation X, which she ‘found to be the most irritating people. The dude generation. Guys could not get out a sentence without uttering the expletive.’
Her rules came in with the advent of the ubiquitous cell phone. On rare occasions she ejects a patron, and she is unrepentant. Not for Coleen the servile and cringing ‘customer is always right’ motto.
She concedes that during the 8:30-10:30 a.m. rush customer service can suffer. ‘If somebody has questions I might be a little short with them because I have to go flip that other guy’s eggs over. But I will never give up the quality of the food.’
Coleen figures she has another 15 years of solo breakfast artistry in her, as long as her knees hold out. ‘I’d like to leave the place feeling that I’ve done the best I can for as many years as I can.’ I’m in awe, and if you don’t like it you can just leave, bud.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s August 2021 World edition.