“That’s always been my goal. To make everyone feel included.”
“The diner is our family hub,” says Melissa Friend-Blocher, of Meyersdale. “Me, my sister, all my cousins, my nieces, before we ever went home from the hospital, we came here. When my sister had her baby, she actually drove past her own house to come here first. After school the bus would drop me off here instead of my house. As college kids, we came here before we went home. My grandparents built the diner in 1967. Five years later they added a seven-room motel. Together, they’re Donges Drive-In & Motel.
“Growing up, it was normal to have ice cream sundaes every day after school, because that’s just what we did. It’s strange to explain to people why we’re such weird, picky eaters. Other kids were told: ‘You have to sit at the table and eat all your food.’ But in our family we said: ‘No. We don’t do that nonsense.’ If mom made something we didn’t like we just came down to the diner and ate something else instead.
“I went to college. Got a real job in New Jersey and was tapped out. I couldn’t go any higher without going to grad school. Around that time my grandmother was diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s and she put the diner up for sale. I did a lot of soul searching. I was homesick for my family. I liked my mountains. I liked walking down the street where everyone knew everyone. One November night I called my mom. I waited till about 10:30 when I figured she’d be asleep. I said: ‘I think I’m moving home and buying the diner. Okay, that’s it. I’m going to bed.’ And I hung up the phone. She said she was awake and worried the rest of the night.
“I ran the diner for a week with my grandmother to see if I could do it. I loved it and got tons of support from the community. I bought the diner January 3rd of 2005. I was 24. I turned 25 in February. I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was too dumb to know any better.
“It’s a family affair. My aunt and my one uncle work here. My sister works here. It’s a loud, boisterous atmosphere. Everyone is a big personality. We warn people when they come in that we talk over each other and interrupt each other.
“Our customers are very loyal. About 15 percent of our customers are from the Great Allegheny Passage. We get people from everywhere. One time this guy came in from riding the trail and he commented on our screen door. I thought: ‘That’s a weird comment.’ It was a Snavely door, a few years old and was worn out. So I said: ‘Yeah, it’s about time to get a new one.’ Next thing I know a brand-new screen door showed up at our place. I said: ‘Where did this come from?’ One of my waitresses said: ‘Oh, there was that guy that owns the company that our door came from. He said ours was looking bad. So he sent us a new one!’
“I see it as a compliment when people say this feels like their own kitchen or they feel like it’s home here. That’s always been my goal. To make everyone feel included. Lots of people say: ‘I don’t like to go out to eat by myself, but I’ll come here because I never feel like I’m by myself.’ We see some people two times a day, three times a day. If we miss somebody it gets to the point where we’ll say: ‘So-and-so hasn’t been in yet. Should we worry?’ They become family.”
This content was created by Anita Harnish for the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy and financed through grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Bureau of Recreation and Conservation, through its Community Conservation Partnerships Program and Environmental Stewardship Fund, administered by Rivers of Steel Heritage Area and Pennsylvania Environmental Council’s Laurel Highlands Mini Grant Program; through funding via the Westmoreland, Fayette, and Somerset County Tourism Grant Programs; and with funds made available by the Great Allegheny Passage Conservancy.