Phila.’s famed Melrose Diner changes hands

Posted: June 26, 2007

What'll it be, hon?

How about a new owner.

South Philadelphia's Melrose Diner, founded more than 70 years ago by a German immigrant, changed hands today.

Richard Kubach Jr., who started working for his father as a 12-year-old, turned over the keys to Michael Petrogiannis, a Greek immigrant who with his three brothers owns nine other diners.

(A 24-hour diner does have keys, incidentally. "That's the challenge - finding them on Christmas Day," Kubach said.)

"Nothing will change," said Petrogiannis, who said he had had his eye on the landmark for several years. "It's the way it is."

Rumors of a sale had been circulating for months. "It's time. I'm going to move on to the next chapter of my life," said Kubach, who will turn 60 later this summer. "Semiretiring would be the best way to describe it." He said he would help his son, T.R., open a pancake house near the Best Western hotel that his family owns in King of Prussia.

"It's sad to say goodbye to everyone," Kubach said. He declined to discuss terms.

Petrogiannis, 51, who came to the United States as a 16-year-old, has become a diner magnate in the last several years, snapping up the landmark Mayfair and the Country Club in Northeast Philadelphia, as well as the Tiffany in Northeast Philadelphia and the Warminster West in Bucks County. He also owns various Michael's diners.

With the Melrose, Petrogiannis gets a slice of Philly lore, with generations of stories on the side: the mobs of fans when a celeb such as Fabian or Al Martino showed up, the mob associate who was rubbed out in his car in the parking lot.

As the jaunty ad jingle says: "Everybody who knows, goes to Melrose."

"It's one of the few places you could go and see a nice mix of humanity, 24 hours a day," said Murray Dubin, a former Inquirer reporter who wrote the 1996 book South Philadelphia: Mummers, Memories and the Melrose Diner.

At 2 in the afternoon or 2 in the morning, a cross-section of Philadelphia puts aside decorum to set its elbows on the Formica amid the clattering of silverware, slapping of spatulas, and rattling of coffeepots. Politicos and celebrities. Docs and nurses from St. Agnes down the street. Flower arrangers from Ten Pennies around the corner. Shift workers and retirees and schoolkids. And when the bars close, the scene gets even better.

Kubach, who took over for his father in 1973, engendered the kind of loyalty seldom seen anymore. Five employees have earned 50-year pins; 54 have worked there more than 25 years, said general manager Anthony Cortese, who started 37 years ago at age 18 as a busboy. Twice, the diner won a "Healthy Workplace" award from the American Psychological Association.

The Melrose dates from the Depression. Dick Kubach, in the hardware business in Germany, came to the United States in 1929 to learn English and improve his lot in life, according to a family history. Kubach went to work in a linoleum factory, but after he began to lose his hearing, he quit to work in a diner in North Philadelphia.

In 1935, Kubach took over a 19-stool diner at 1610 W. Passyunk Ave., naming it after a can of Mel's tomatoes, which had a picture of a rose on the label. The story goes that Kubach asked a sign painter to start with the word Mel and to add a rose. The painter, though, lacked artistic skills and simply wrote the word.

By any other name, the diner bloomed. In 1956, Kubach moved it a block away into the stainless-steel structure - built around a Paramount diner, in the parlance of diner lore - on the triangle of 15th Street and Passyunk and Snyder Avenues, a block from Broad Street. The senior Kubach died in 1998, just shy of his 91st birthday.

It was business as usual today, under the coffee-cup clock ("Good things to eat, around the clock"). Hottest day of the year, and waitress Penny Bright, a "1972" pin on her black-and-white uniform, served oatmeal and soup.

Bright said she was "devastated" when Kubach told employees today that he was retiring. "I wish him luck. I never thought it would come to this. It's like a family."

Biting her lip, she squeezed Cortese. "He cares," Bright said of Kubach. Turning to Cortese, she added: "Besides, I'd be stupid to leave this handsome fellow. Don't write that! My husband will see it.

"Ah, he don't care."

"It's all about the people here," Cortese said. "With any luck, it'll continue."


Contact staff writer Michael Klein at 215-854-5514 or mklein@phillynews.com.

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