A family business that stands at the corner of Madison and 18th St. on the south side of Muncie has had a whirlwind of a few years.
Melissa Watkins, the owner of the Madison Street Diner, is a child of hard-working money saving parents. Eight years ago, Melissa’s mother put all the money in her savings into starting up a restaurant.
It worked out to be about $80,000. This was a lot of her mother Rita’s life savings. Her dream was to start a restaurant and that dream was beginning to surface. When they started, they purchased an old warehouse and flipped it into a retrofitted diner with a kitchen and a dining area, and a vibrant ‘50s motif.
“My mom had managed a restaurant, but neither of my parents knew what they were doing. They both worked open to close for two years before I moved back home and my mom gave me a job trying to manage it for her,” Watkins said.
Watkins looks at the place as not only one to eat, but a place for the community to gather. She regularly gives people plates free of charge and has her set of regulars that remain loyal to the diner as a place they can always go no matter how hard times get.
“I am not just a business owner, I do my best to help the community.” Watkins said. “We have a regular who loves football, I heard he lost his cable so the next day I went out and bought a TV for the diner and purchased the extra sports package so he could come in to watch his game on Sundays. It’s not just about the food, we do anything we can to help people out.”
To her, it’s more about the people, and she considers the customers her family. Every Thanksgiving they hold dinners for anyone that wants to come in and eat, or that may not have a
family to celebrate the holiday with. She told prideful stories of all the regulars she has step foot through the door; to them it feels like home.
“One year we had a guy come in last minute and ask if we had a seat for a veteran. My husband was in the military and I told him, of course, we had a plate for him. We found out that he had lost his mother the week before and the bank took her house so now he was homeless. It may not have been much for us, but it was everything to him and that is why we are here,” Watkins said.
After a few years of running the diner, they came under some financial hardships. That is when someone from the community nominated them for the show Restaurant Impossible. This is a show that comes in during a week’s period to help the staff of a small business to get back on their feet. They not only come with financial help, but also help teach valuable leadership skills to help improve the quality of the business.
“It was such a unique experience. They came in and helped fix the place. We had cracking walls and it was a disaster and they helped clean everything up and repair things we could not afford to repair ourselves,” said Watkins
Not only did they repair the diner, but Robert Irvine, the host, came in and provided business advice that would help improve the diner. Wakins said they showed them how to manage the business and their employees in a new way that helped their business thrive.
Once the diner was starting to get it’s feet back under itself, Indiana issued the stay-at-home order. This effectively reduced all restaurants in Muncie to only being able to offer carry-out. The interview we conducted with Watkins was the first day that dining out was banned, and the shock of the news was still fresh.
Watkins was unsure and worried about how this order was going to affect the finally profitable diner.
As of April 30, the Madison Retro Diner is still open for carryout and delivery through DoorDash.
COVID-19 has been a whirlwind for Muncie restaurants, with almost all service employees with jobs like waiter, host, bartender, etc. being laid off. This is something that is going to not only hurt the community’s favorite restaurants but will find a lot of folks that keep those places going out of a job.
Michael Hicks, The Director for the Center of Business and Economic Research at Ball State University was quoted in the Columbus Dispatch: “it’s going to really clobber these folks.”
According to the Muncie-Delaware County Indiana Economic Development Alliance, jobs in the accommodation & food services industry represents 8.7 percent of East Central Indiana’s workforce. This number is expected to hit a major downturn.
Although Watkins shared the sentiment of worry along with a lot of other local business owners, she was confident that her regulars would still support her in any way they could. Through these tough times, the Madison Street Retro Diner will still be serving their homemade plates of love and operate as a place of refuge and warmth for all of Muncie’s citizens.