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By Peg Brown
It would have been easy to miss seeing this small business on Waterman Avenue, squeezed between a pet groomer’s and a one-room martial arts studio. Yet for those who gathered there almost every day, perched on green vinyl counter stools, elbows and newspapers resting on the gold swirls of the dated Formica, it was a forum for sharing bits and pieces of life among those who might, were it not for this place, be complete strangers. Karen’s Kitchen—a classic American diner—but not just by the standard of its grill centered menu, but by the way in which it duplicated the oft repeated culture of a small town.
The space opened in the early 1990s as Our Family Restaurant owned by the Robenheimer family of Smithfield. Under the quick work and wit of the family’s matriarch, Betty, who served as chief hostess and entertainer, the diner quickly became the home of a very diverse collection of characters. In those early days, it was shift workers from Mine Safety that provided much of the traffic. But the casual and warm atmosphere, all-day breakfast menu, sizzling burgers, and energetic conversation soon had a large and loyal community following.
In 1993, Karen Romanelli, a clerk at the next door Cumberland Farms, found that the business was for sale and, as she’ll admit, with little forethought and a lot of enthusiasm, the doors to Karen’s Kitchen were opened for business. “I had no idea what I was getting into—running a small business was a challenge. Suddenly I was the cook, business agent, inventory control officer, liaison with the state inspectors, and head waitress. We ran on a shoe string, wondering occasionally if we could actually make payroll. But I loved every minute (well maybe not the 5 a.m. mornings) because the people became our family.”
When Karen lost her husband Paul in 2005, she called Teresa (Anderson), her self-described teeny bopper buddy with whom she had shared all kinds of business adventures since high school. When Karen asked Teresa to join her, Teresa’s response was “I don’t know nothing about running a restaurant! But count me in.” The two successfully carried on the diner tradition until Teresa took over in 2009, retaining the name Karen’s Kitchen in honor of her life-long friend.
Diners are unique to American culture and have been romanticized in Norman Rockwell paintings and stories as places where all those who gather share a common bond, despite position, family differences, and points of view. Make no mistake, those green vinyl stools at Karen’s had witnessed some heated political debates, and different points of view on a wide variety of topics. But they have also witnessed the sharing of life’s joys and sorrows supported by bonds developed over years of shared coffee and confidences.
On her last day, Teresa echoed the theme of family. “These are the best people you could ever meet. They aren’t customers. They’re family. We have attended their weddings, wakes and funerals. We have supported one another through some very difficult times. And we meet almost every day, strengthening those ties before we exit through the front door to our everyday lives. It’s been a privilege, a joy, hard work and sometimes a real pain…but I wouldn’t trade one minute of the times I’ve spent with my regulars. However…I am looking forward to sitting on the other side of the counter!”
Teresa closed her door on Memorial Day—but not before she cooked and served a wedding breakfast for 40 people—a true community partner.
The business has been purchased by Ray Burns, owner of the Classic Café in Providence. Mr. Burns began renovations the day after Teresa turned over the keys and plans to be open for business within a few weeks of the writing of this story. He intends to create a 50s style décor, and focus on breakfast, lunch and perhaps dinner.
The diner concept is particularly associated with the Northeast. In fact the first diner in America reputedly was created in 1872 when Walter Scott sold food out of a horse drawn carriage to the employees of the Providence Journal.
And thank heavens Karen’s will be reopening. It’s been VERY difficult for the ROMEOS of Smithfield to find a place to settle the world’s problems and plan their golf dates. ROMEOS—that would be retired old men eating out! Check out the diners you frequent. It’s groups of men hovered over their coffee cups at the counter or gathered at “their” table—settling yet another world crisis.