Last Call at Joe's Diner in Lee, MA

The end of an era at the quintessential American diner.

Joes Diner Last Night Snow
The last night under Joe Sorrentino's ownership, December 30, 2000. Photo courtesy of Joe Sorrentino.

“I used to tell people they were in the Twilight Zone,” says Joe Sorrentino, former owner and operator of Joe’s Diner, a tiny eatery in the blue-collar town of Lee, Massachusetts. Since 1939, the restaurant has been a fixture in Lee, and over the years it has come to be regarded as the quintessential American diner. In part, the establishment owes its fame to Norman Rockwell, who, in 1958, chose it as the inspiration for “The Runaway,” one of his most enduring images. But Joe’s owes most of its notoriety to Sorrentino and family. Through a combination of dogged determination and old-fashioned hard work, together they realized the patriarch’s vision of a friendly neighborhood place that simply offered good food at low prices.

Perhaps most remarkable about Sorrentino’s 45-year tenure was that the diner seemed to resist the passage of time. From 1955-2000, the atmosphere, décor, and even the prices remained almost unchanged. In fact, Joe’s was so consistent and so reliable for so long that the idea of any change—much less a Joe’s Diner sans Joe—became nearly unfathomable to many of its patrons. 

Thus it’s safe to say that Sorrentino’s retirement and attempted sale of the diner at the end of last year caused considerable consternation among locals and tourists alike. The year 2001 has brought a heretofore unthinkable amount of change and instability—an unsettled ownership situation, new furnishings, and an extended period in which the diner was closed—which has alienated many of Joe’s most loyal customers. It’s clearly the end of an era, and while Sorrentino has no regrets, he’s not particularly happy about the changes or the diner’s uncertain future.

When Sorrentino bought Joe’s for $5,500 in 1955, he envisioned running the place for ten years before moving on to something else. Instead he spent his first thirty-three years there working virtually nonstop. From 1955-88 the diner stayed open 24/7 except for sixteen hours on Sundays and a handful of major holidays, with Sorrentino and sons working up to eighteen hours a day. Beginning in the late ’80s he cut back the hours somewhat—with his wife Theresa spending more and more time behind the counter—but not enough to traumatize the customers. Along the way, Joe’s became famous for its unwavering daily specials—Monday (roast beef), Tuesday (roasted turkey, chicken breast, meat loaf), Wednesday (fresh roasted pork), Thursday (corned beef), Friday (baked macaroni and fish), and Saturday (Virginia ham)—along with a reputation for good service and a caring, personal touch.{pagebreak}

Located in a town of 5,900 people in the scenic Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, the diner’s core constituency has long been a mix of workers from the neighboring paper mills and elite New Yorkers visiting nearby retreats like Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow and the Red Lion Inn. While the two groups have nothing in common, tension between them has been virtually non-existent. “Where else can you find millionaires and people making $6 an hour in the same place?" says waitress Karla Geoffrey. 

Sometime last year the 69-year-old Sorrentino made the decision to retire, with his declining health as the primary mitigating factor. “The truth is that I was really tired,” he says. “It has become hard for me to walk, because except for going back and forth behind the counter I’ve never done any walking.” The death of his older sister and his own battle with pneumonia last October provided further impetus for him to finally start taking it easy. And, to some small degree, the local health inspector may have contributed to Sorrentino’s decision, as new health regulations would have soon forced him to install an automatic dishwasher and make other modifications to what he felt was a perfectly good kitchen. 

At first, Sorrentino offered the diner to two of his sons and longtime co-workers, Mike and Frank, but they were looking for a way out too. “The first 25 years I never had a vacation,” he says. “But my sons were worse than I was—they never had a vacation.”

Since keeping the place in the family wasn’t an option, Sorrentino put Joe’s on the market, a move that warranted considerable attention in the local and regional media. It didn’t take long for him to find a buyer, especially since his asking price was a mere hundred-thousand-dollars, small potatoes for a place that brought in a reported $500,000 a year. The new owner turned out to be Ramona Hamilton, an intensive care nurse who worked at the Berkshire Medical Center in nearby Pittsfield. Lucky for her, the sale wasn’t formally completed before she took over the day-to-day operations during the first week in January, because even with extensive coaching from Sorrentino, she proved to be woefully unprepared for the restaurant business. Within four days she was completely overwhelmed by the workload and advised everyone that the deal was off. “She always dreamed of owning a restaurant,” says Sorrentino, “but she almost had a nervous breakdown.” 

For the first time in sixty years, the diner was closed indefinitely, a fact that pained Sorrentino considerably. Perhaps that’s why he quickly turned and resold Joe’s (and it’s name) on a contingency basis to a trio of successful local restauranteurs—Chuck and Gordon Hebler and their business partner Terry Shapiro—who had the diner up and running again in a matter of weeks. 

Right away, the new owners began to lose some of the most devoted locals, even before they began making changes to the eatery’s interior. “They lost about half the regular customers,” says Sorrentino. Among them were the Higgins twins, two 81-year-old brothers who ate at Joe’s six days a week for the past twenty years. “They would come in at 5:20 pm Monday to Friday and 2:30 on Saturday,” says waitress Jackie Nicholas. “They’ve been back twice since we closed in January, but they have admitted to us that things are just not the same. When you’re eighty-one years old, do you want to make changes?”

“People say it isn’t the same,” notes Sorrentino. “I guess it was a tough act to follow. Ever since I left the place it doesn’t seem like people can make any money there,” he says, without a trace of arrogance. According to Nicholas, the Sorrentino family has created a legacy that is impossible to live up to. “In this day and age, would you want to work from 6 am until two or three in the morning? I don’t know anybody today who can keep the same job for forty-five years,” she says. 

The diner’s sagging financial fortunes and the new owners’ option to void the deal after three months have already created a pressurized situation. “These three guys are paying $1,800 a month for the mortgage and $700 rent,” says Sorrentino. “That’s nothing. But now their lawyers are calling and telling me they want to reduce the payments. [Ed. note: The new proprietors declined to do any interviews for this story]. My lawyer says, ‘Joe, they’re going to step all over you because you’re a good guy,’” recalls Sorrentino. 

Meanwhile, the general consensus among the diner’s longtime staffers is that Sorrentino has never been truly recognized for what he’s done for the community. “If you were out on the street and had no money and needed something to eat, you could walk thru that door and get a free meal,” reminds Nicholas. Sorrentino notes that he always paid special attention to widows. “They had their own prices,” he says. “As long as they came in the diner and ate, that was the main thing for me. If they didn’t come in, then I had to go and find out why they weren’t in that day.” 

For most folks, the prices have never been an issue anyway. Even in 2001, a grilled cheese sandwich or hamburger is only $1.50, a cheeseburger twenty-five cents more. When Sorrentino was behind the grill, customers unwittingly dictated their own portion sizes. “I used to ask the waitresses, ‘Who’s this for?’” reveals Sorrentino. “If you ate and finished your dinner, you’d get more the next time. If you didn’t eat it all, I would cut you back. I hate to waste food,” he adds.

These days, Joe’s is on the road to becoming a run-of-the-mill restaurant, with new tables and a new floor already in place. “These guys are going to modernize it. It’s going to become a modern diner,” says Nicholas. Not everyone thinks that’s all bad. “It could be brightened up a bit,” notes Geoffrey. But Sorrentino is a little perturbed that changes are being made and the ownership transfer papers haven’t been signed yet. “After three months they were supposed to let me know if they wanted it or not. Well, three months are up and I haven’t got any notice yet,” he complains. 

In the meantime, Sorrentino is adjusting to life as a retiree. Last Christmas his kids pooled their money to buy him a set of golf clubs and a membership at a local country club. In May, he finally played golf for the first time in his life, shooting a respectable 54 over nine holes. “I put a lot of things off for the last forty-five years,” he quips. 

As for the future of the diner he says, “I’d just like to see these three guys finish what I started. I think I had the best business in town,” he continues. “You treat people right and they’re going to treat you right.”