This last Friday I stopped in to the Town Talk Diner for an early dinner. I hadn’t been in a few months as my more recent visits had been met with mediocre food and questionable service. Since it opened in 2006, it has gone from rock-solid on every single visit during founders Aaron Johnson, Tim Niver, and David Vlach’s leadership to hit-or-miss lately, seemingly declining a bit with each ownership and chef change.
We snacked on cheese curds and shortly after we ordered our dinner, our waiter came back, squatted down, rested his arms on our table, and looked at us straight in the eye: “I don’t know a good way to say this so I’m just going to say it.” In short, the kitchen staff had left. I inquired further, and he explained the diner had hired a sous chef from 112 Eatery and a few of that chef’s friends. Upon receiving this news, the kitchen staff quit en masse and walked out. Replacements were “on the way” and we could wait close to a half hour for food — or we could leave and the appetizer would be on the house. I wonder, given this situation, who would stick around and pay to find out how this plays out? Our waiter was extremely apologetic and tried to do everything he could to ease the situation, even offering us a gift card, which we declined.
Another story emerged when I talked with Town Talk Diner’s sous-chef Eric Moore and Kim Ngoc Tong (who was the last original employee from 2006). A couple weeks ago, they and another of Town Talk Diner’s staff jointly put in their resignation notice. Their last day was to be on Sunday, October 17. When this news spread, a number of others decided to follow independently, eventually putting the total people leaving the Town Talk Diner around 10.
In my conversations with Moore, Tong, and others about why they were quitting, the underlying theme was differences in direction between the ownership that acquired the Town Talk Diner in 2008 (Theros Restaurant Group) and the staff. It became clear how independently the Diner was trying to operate from Theros and how that independence was going away.
The feelings from those quitting echoed over and over that the ownership was trying to control a restaurant it didn’t understand. “The last thing we want is the Diner to fail. We’d do anything for the Diner to go on, but we can’t go on like this,” Moore said. “They don’t get what the Town Talk Diner is.” He explained, in one example, proposed menu changes and ingredient sourcing choices reminiscent of Theros Restaurant Group’s other two restaurants, the St. Clair Broiler (classic greasy spoon) and Rudolph’s (“upscale” barbecue).
According to Moore, Tong, and from the bits I could see from table 45, just before 5pm this last Friday, two days before the departing staff’s last day, owner Charlie Theros asked those quitting for their keys and to gather their personal belongings. According to Moore, near the dumpster behind the Town Talk Diner, Theros handed out severance checks, saying, “We can end this charade now,” as they needed to “cut the cancer out.” Tong asked, “What charade?” At least six people were let go on the spot, and there were apparently more severance checks in Theros’ hand for others. Staff from Rudolph’s showed up and there were pre-printed special menus for the day geared around the replacement staff.
Why fire employees if they’re going to leave two days later? Perhaps an indicator is the vibe from their planned R.E.M.-inspired going-away party slated for Sunday, October 17th, “It’s the end of the Diner as we know it… and I feel fine,” created last Thursday. On the Facebook wall for the event, Moore corrects a commenter about the relationship with the ownership and reaffirms what his mission was: “We didn’t work for them, we worked for the Diner.”
Are they heroes or rogues? I talked with Brian Hedlund, Director of Operations with Theros Restaurant Group, who made a few clarifications, but wasn’t able to say much yet. I was told clearly that “the employees who have left [the Town Talk Diner] said it was they who wanted to go in a different direction, not us.” He reaffirmed that “firing” wasn’t the right word — they quit. Hedlund wasn’t able to tell me who they had hired to be the replacement chef but confirmed what I heard about 112 Eatery and that he’ll start in a few weeks. When asked if anything is changing, he said, “This is a chef-driven business, and the menu will be whatever [the new chef] feels comfortable with. I expect it will change.” Otherwise, Hedlund reminded me of the Town Talk Diner’s history and that it will continue to be a great, award-winning restaurant. We talked about some of its recent successes, such as the high amount of business they’ve gotten through Groupon.
While the whole situation may seem like a disaster, there’s great potential for everyone involved. Most of those departing the Town Talk Diner have jobs lined up — some high profile — in places opening within the year, such as the Prairie Ale House, Pinstripes, and The Inn. Town Talk Diner is now in a position to reevaluate itself with a new chef and crew, some of whom they’ve already hired and slated to start in the next couple weeks. In some ways, it’s starting a restaurant from scratch but with an existing fan-base to start with — which may be perfect for them. I’ll be back in a couple months to see how it goes.
The going-away party for those fired is still happening tonight, even if it’s brief. “I just want to go and say goodbye,” Tong said. “I don’t understand why things ended this way. I’m going to have a last drink with the people I’ve worked with the last four and a half years.”