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Joe’s Diner gets a facelift

Heather Earle. (Emily Thurlow)

LEE — The iconic Joe’s Diner, which has been forever immortalized as the backdrop to Norman Rockwell’s 1958 Saturday Evening Post cover “The Runaway”, is looking a bit different than it was when it was first depicted.
From Monday, Feb. 10 through Monday, Feb. 17, owner Heather Earle closed the diner for renovations. In that time, she and members of the staff, which included her sister, Shelly Swindell, her son, Russell Baker Jr., her fiance Sergio Fortes and long-tenured employee Margaret McDowell, tore up carpet, installed a new floor and replaced the counter and stools.
McDowell, who was first hired at the restaurant when she was 17 years old. Though she left for a short time, McDowell, now 67, has spent a good chunk of her whizzing around the diner, serving up meals to patrons and has worked for five different owners.
Earle and family members also tiled the eatery, ripped out the old paneling, installed sheetrock and applied fresh paint.
“It was time,” said Earle, who has owned the diner now for seven years. “It was starting to look very old and run-down.”
Joe Sorrentino opened Joe’s Diner in 1955. After returning from serving in the military, the diner, which was originally next door to its current 85 Center St. location from 1939 to 1954, went up for sale. Sorrentino, 21 at the time, borrowed money from family and bought the restaurant.
Doors were open 24 hours a day with the help of family, said Earle of the eatery’s history.
Most of the patrons came from the mill, so the diner catered to them, she said.
“Nowadays, we get more families,” she said. “We’d get people that would pop their heads in, take a look around and leave. It was important to do these upgrades to make it look like a place people would want to come into.”
The new counter maintains a similar feel as the previous curving one, but has four less seats. Instead, Earle was able to provide six more seats at tables with the space freed up from the counter, she said.
In total, she estimates that she’s invested $15,000 between all of the work, she said.
Though the restaurant has been “freshened up” as Earle puts it, she still maintains Sorrentino’s legacy. For the most part, she’s kept the menu the same and retained his classic recipes, as well as the family atmosphere of staff tending to the needs of patrons, she said. On occasion, Earle’s 6-year-old grandson Christopher will pop in and offer to help peel potatoes, she added.
Earle has, however, switched up some of the daily specials as she found that one of the items — Wednesday night pork loins — were not a big hit. Instead, she’s swapped that out for a buy one, get one free spaghetti dinner special. As a result, the restaurant goes through about five gallons of spaghetti sauce each week, she said.
Previously, Sorrentino would pop into the restaurant on a daily basis. But more recently, Sorrentino, now 87 years old, hasn’t been able to make it out very often. Still, his memory is plastered all over the eatery. Earle built a shadow box to showcase some of the memories throughout the diner’s more than six-decade legacy.
“We make friends … not money,” — a line Sorrentino had coined — also graces the backs of the shirts worn by staff.
During the breakfast hour on Tuesday, Feb. 25, regular customers could be heard offering up compliments on the changes as they sipped their coffee and dipped their eggs.
One of the most remarked about items that Earle has implemented into the diner’s changes is a 3-foot by 3-foot canvas recreation of Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover, painted by illustrator Jorge Pinho. The painting is situated next to a puzzle-piece representation of Rockwell’s cover and a photograph of Clemens, Locke and Sorrentino recreating the scene in more recent years. Since the installation, visitors to the area could still be seen snapping photos recreating the Rockwell’s scene.
And though Rockwell’s image has forever captured Sorrentino and his diner in time, Earle says it’s not what put Joe’s Diner on the map.
“It was Joe. Joe did that,” said Earle, noting that even though he’s not coming into the restaurant daily anymore, Sorrentino is still bringing people in.
Joe’s Diner is open Tuesday through Friday, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Saturday through Monday, 6 a.m. to 3 p.m.

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