by Melissa Begley
On the first Springish day in what seems like forever, the Budd Lake Diner is buzzing with an
inordinate amount of people for a Wednesday afternoon. Upon my arrival, I walk past a woman
scurrying about outside moving some eye catching hanging plants from place to place. I soon
learn this is Fotini Jelis, known fondly as Faye to patrons and employees alike, and to say she
wears many hats is quite the understatement. In our brief half hour conversation, she is
interrupted by various employees, as well as the soda guy, the coffee guy, someone looking for
a job application, and someone else looking for a signature. There are also customers who
swing by the table where we talk with various updates about injuries, vacations, and simply to
Faye owns the diner with her husband of thirty-nine years, Valos, who goes by Bill. The other
owners are Faye’s sister and her husband. Those are Agoritsa (Rita) and John Balaskonis.
They are married for forty one years. The two sisters live around the block from one another.
Each of the sisters has two children and two grandchildren.
You hear about family businesses, but you won’t get more family than the Budd Lake Diner.
September 10th, will mark thirty-two years in business. In a world where new is always better,
and everything is disposable, it’s amazing that the diner has been able to sustain itself for so
Faye and Rita moved to this country from Greece. Their mother was already here
with her brother. Faye’s father and four daughters came in 1975. They went to Detroit,
Michigan where their uncle had a restaurant. Faye’s aunt taught her everything “and thank
God she did.” It became how they made their life.
Faye and Rita met a pair of roommates from Jersey City who coincidentally had always wanted
to marry sisters. These roommates had come from Greece in 1968. The friends’ dreams came
true and the two couples were married They worked in both the Lyndhurst Diner and the
Meadowlands Diner before purchasing the Budd Lake Diner. They bought it from a man who
had built it four and a half years earlier. When he retired, the two couples saw an opportunity
and they took it.
I ask Faye about a typical day.
Faye speaks matter of factly about her husband, Bill. “Bill’s day starts at 5 am. He goes to work
and starts to cook roasts, soups, gravies, and vegetables. Everything is fresh daily. If Bill won’t
eat it, he won’t serve it.” He leaves at twelve or one and comes back at about 4:30 to do the
sautees and dinners. John gets involved in the cooking too. Faye comes in a little later, and
handles all the people who come in to provide various services to the diner. She makes trips to
the bank, pays the bills, goes for flowers, handles insurance, and various other daily tasks that
need attending. Faye is who you call at midnight when the credit card machine won’t work.
Rita comes in the afternoon. She cooks cheesecakes, fruit pies, muffins, pot pie dough, and
rice pudding. Many of these treats offer gluten free and sugar free options. Rita is also the
hostess at night. I grow tired just listening to all that needs to be done on a regular day.
I ask about Bill and Faye’s children and wonder if hey will join the family business.
The second generation has no interest in the diner and their parents are understanding and
supportive of their choice. They dissuaded them from this life.
Faye says, “I told my kids: ‘Go to school. You can’t have the life we had. We understand. We
did not know anything else. We did not know a trade. We were willing to work. You want to
have a family life? You have to go to school. You want to be off on the weekends? That’s ok.
We understand. We always worked since we were little. We work now. It doesn’t matter with
Faye and Bill ’s two sons are engineers (one with a PhD) who went through the school system
at Mount Olive and now work at Picatinny. They are fourteen months apart and best friends. “I
wouldn’t want them in here. It’s very stressful, ” Faye laments. Each son has two children.
John and Rita have two daughters. One is a pharmaceutical inspector and the other is home
expecting her third child.
Faye speaks comfortably about her team at the diner. There are approximately ten full time
waitresses and many more part timers. Bill and John do most of the cooking, and there are
about six short order cooks as well. “We’re like a family here. We are not fast food. We are not
a chain restaurant. I’m not the boss. We’re not better than anyone. We are all the same. We
are all co workers. We are proud of what we do here.”
I am in awe of the work ethic and the family aspect, but Faye is so matter of fact. “We’re
average people. We are clean cut and church going people.” They don’t allow nonsense in the
diner. “I call nonsense drugs and alcohol.” They haven’t had many problems from patrons or
customers, but taught her children at a young age that nonsense will not be tolerated.
They work closely with their church, Saint Andrew in Randolph, as well as with St. Jude here in
town. The diner is often busiest when mass lets out. About the two churches, Faye says, “We
take care of them. They take care of us. They don’t want us ever to retire!” Faye laughs easily
and jovially. When I try to get her to pinpoint the most busy time in the diner, she can’t name
just one. “We have awesome dinners…breakfast is always busy….lunch was so busy
yesterday and it was only Tuesday! Nighttime is busy…..You never know.”
Working so closely with your family may not be everyone, but Faye speaks so highly of her
husband. She speaks of a time when they would go to Greece every other summer “so our kids
could know where we came from, know the culture, know where some of the homes and
property” that they own are located. Now, they can’t get away. The diner keeps them too busy.
Faye speaks about how on these trips, her husband would read a book a day. “He came to
this country number one in his class. He traveled the world before he jumped ship in Jersey
City and became legal thirty eight years ago. He is not just a chef. He is very knowledgeable
about politics, world history, dates, and wars.”
Faye knows ninety to ninety-five percent of her customers. They come back because, “They
know it’s good. They say it’s tasty. Of course it’s tasty! Everything is fresh. Homemade. The
turkey, the chicken …nothing is out of a can. Well, just tomato paste, tomatoe puree and apple
sauce.” And she laughs again loudly and at home with her customers. “Everything is made to
order. It’s like a little factory.”
I could’ve stayed all day. I’m fascinated by people who succeed in life by persevering and
putting family about all. During our talk, Faye sent her young hostess off to school for the
afternoon, and now Faye will be taking over those duties for the rest of the day. Faye tells me
that Raeanna Cope is like a granddaughter to her and their easy banter supports this claim.
Now that Raeanna is out the door, a number of people have been trying to catch Faye’s eye,
and a few are waiting at the register for her to pay, so I start to pack up my belongings and
make noises about leaving. She says she will go get a piece of cheesecake for me to take
home. Faye returns with enough to feed eight tables worth of customers. With summer
approaching and a winter’s worth of weight on my waist, I tell myself I’ll just have a bite, but one
taste makes me a liar. I devour entirely too much upon my arrival home. It was supposed to be
lunch’s appetizer, but it instead replaces lunch entirely.
The food is delicious at the diner, but there’s a level of comfort reminiscent of home. You come
for the food, but you return for the feel of family.