by Charles McGuigan
Even before Kathy Deleguardia was born, there was foreshadowing of things to come, hints about the diner she would one day open, and the industry in which she has spent her entire adult life.
“My father owned a diner in the fifties,” says Kathy. “When my parents got together and married, my dad owned a diner. It was in the town where I grew up—Fairport, New York.” She pauses for a moment, remembering something else. “My great-grandparents on my English side owned a bakery in England,” she says. “They also peddled baked goods out of a truck. So both sides of my family worked in hospitality. And I do love the hospitality industry.”
It’s Sunday afternoon, a full hour after Brooks Diner closed, and a dozen customers linger at two four-tops, a booth, and three of the barstools that line the counter. They’re finishing off deserts and coffee, still telling stories, but they’re not being rushed along. This is, after all, a Southern diner, and the jawing and the japing are almost as important as the eating.
Kathy’s two sons, Javen and Blake Thomas, join us for a time at the booth that commands a view from the south side of the diner, offering one of the most distinctive views of Richmond’s skyline anywhere in the city. And then Jason Naggles comes by our booth and talks for a while. “I don’t have any family here other than my boys,” Kathy says. “But so many people who work here are family now. And a lot of our patrons, too. Jason’s been coming in for about a year now and he’s definitely family. On Sundays he comes in, helps out, and then we end the day with a prayer. I am really blessed.”
Eight years ago, on June 2, Brooks Diner opened its doors for the first time. Kathy received the key to the restaurant on her birthday in late March. Then it was a mad scramble to get ready for the opening. They deep-cleaned and painted, added chairs and booths, light fixtures, and all the other trappings of a diner. The day after all their licensing and zoning was approved by the respective city offices, Kathy and her former business partner opened for business. “We wrote the menu in the eleventh hour over the Memorial Day weekend,” says Kathy. “And we were working until the moment we opened the front door that first morning.”
And even that first day, they did surprisingly well. “When I opened that first day, I didn’t know anything about business and managing people,” she says, laughing. “But I learned.”
Kathy did know a thing or two about diners. “My first job at eighteen ever was in a diner,” she says. “It was called the Country Club Diner, and I was working my way through college. It was in Rochester, New York. I did the bar rush, ten at night till six in the morning, and I went to college during the day. We had thirteen waitresses and it was a 250-seater.”
She later worked at a Chinese restaurant, a Thai restaurant, an Indian restaurant. She also worked at two upscale restaurants, Hogan’s Hideway and Charlie’s Frog Pond, but her last waitressing gig in Rochester was at a diner called Jim’s Restaurant.
When she and her former husband decided to pull up stakes and head south, they checked out Richmond, and as they were driving out West Broad Street, Kathy caught of glimpse of a restaurant out of the corner of her eye. It was a fleeting image, but something registered with her. “This was even before we made the decision to move to Richmond,” Kathy says. “We drove by McLeans and I saw the business hours and I thought to myself: That’s where I want to work. The hours were perfect—morning to early afternoon.”
When they settled in Richmond, Kathy painted watercolors for the frame shop where her husband worked, and glazed Pogs in the studio of North Side ceramic artist Mary Garber. Kathy also landed a job at McLeans. They brought her on to fill in for a server who was out on maternity leave, and the position eventually became full-time. Kathy would work there for the next nine years, until she opened Brooks Diner.
“McLeans was family to me,” she says. “It was a lucrative job, and there wasn’t a lot of turnover.” Even the name of her diner came through McLeans. “Brooks Diner is actually named after Ann Brooks who worked at McLeans for 35 years and she raised five kids as a single mother, and I adored her,” Kathy says. “We worked together for seven years, and I partnered here originally with her granddaughter, Connie.”
Kathy ended up carving out a perfect niche in the lower North Side—a classic diner. She serves up comfort food with a Southern flair and absolutely no pretensions. All the food is fresh, and the pricing affordable even for the slimmest billfold. And this, too: Breakfast is available all day long, with lunch overlapping, so it’s as if brunch is served up seven days a week.
Beyond all that, though, it’s the place itself, its warmth and ambiance. It feels like family here, and that has everything to do with Kathy.
“I feel like I’m welcoming people into my home and I love setting my own environment,” she says. “I love playing my own music.” Incidentally, the music is always perfect.
“And then I have the social interaction,” says Kathy. “The satisfaction of knowing that someone has been nurtured, and that they feel welcomed.
Earlier in the day, eight people celebrated a birthday here, three four-tops slid together to form a table that could comfortably seat the entire party. “Those are my proudest moments,” Kathy says. “When people choose my restaurant for celebratory occasion, it makes me so proud. It really is such an honor to me.”
“And the other thing that I love is the comfort level my diners have,” she says. “A single woman, alone, can come in her sweats, and feel at home, because to me a diner is the home of a community. There is a social connect it. It’s a community-based restaurant.”
Kathy looks to the future. “Now, it’s time to branch out a little bit,” she says. “More vegetarian selections, and gluten-free and sautéed dishes.” There may one day be outdoor dining, and beer and wine.
When she considers the past eight years, says Kathy, “I’ve been running a family business without a family.”
Then she stops herself in mid-sentence. “I’ve been blessed that so many angels that have come to help me over the years,” she says. “I’ve had tremendous support.” Kathy gestures toward her two sons, and the young man who sits at our booth. “Jason found a family here,” she says, and Jason nods.
She mentions her employees, Carly, Jo and Aimee, Kenny and Terrence, and all the others. And then she tells me about two retired brothers—Herman and Jerry Hicks—whose parents used to run the Chesterfield Diner on Hull Street. “They were customers, and from day one they have stepped in to help on the floor when we’ve needed people,” Kathy says. She lists others still, patrons and friends alike, who have become an integral part of the Brooks Diner family.
“I’ve been very blessed,” says Kathy Deleguardia. “Lovely, lovely people. A lot of good people in our lives. And it has become family. It’s beautiful.”
Mon-Fri, 7-3; Sat & Sun, 8-2
1600 Brook Road
Richmond, VA 23220