Audio slideshow by Shanon Firth
Text by Chester Soria
Athina Skermo refused to sit down.
She walked through her diner and wiped down the fake wooden tabletops that were one shade brighter than the wood paneling throughout the space. Skermo, 60, was well into the fifth hour of her workday by 8:30 a.m.
“I threw my back out yesterday,” she said as she pushed a chair under one of the tables. “If I sit down, I won’t get back up.”
And this was just a Monday morning, she said with a smile.
Skermo said her diner’s been as busy now as it ever was, but she admitted that Tina’s Place hasn’t been immune to a slow-moving economy.
Her customers, however, agreed that her affordable menu makes it the only diner in Bushwick where warehouse workers and afterhours partygoers alike can get short stacks with bacon and coffee for less than $6 and on the table in less than eight minutes.
Tina’s Place sits at 1002 Flushing Ave. and across the street from the Boar’s Head factory. Skermo and her husband bought the diner 41 years ago. One of Skermo’s relatives first opened the diner in the 1930s. She kept the odd hours – from 3:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. – to better accommodate the neighboring warehouse’s operating hours.
Since she first opened, Boar’s Head opened up its own cafeteria, which she was afraid would pull business. At the same time, Williamsburg’s urban middle class started to settle around Tina’s Place in what used to be considered an industrial area.
But Skermo said that she welcomed the changes. Her regulars still visit her, and the new residents bring with them a night life that keeps her Saturday night shifts teeming with customers as they dry up from their last call after 4 a.m.
“It’s our busiest night,” Skermo said. “It’s always full now.”
Earlier in the day, truck driver Joe Nix sat at a table near the counter, and looked over a clipboard that held a stack of spreadsheets. He hadn’t been to Tina’s Place in more than two years and said he decided to stop by today before going back to the warehouse.
He had already finished his plate of eggs with bacon, and said he could count on Skermo’s food to be as dependable as her hospitality.
“It’s still as good as it was two years ago,” he said.
Meanwhile, Joe Martinez walked in and sat on a stool at the far end of the counter. A supervisor at Boar’s Head, Martinez worked at the warehouse for 12 years and used to visit Skermo regularly. He took a break from the job but recently came back. He said that he wasn’t surprised to see Skermo still at it.
“Thought you’d retire by now,” Martinez said.
“For 40 years I’ve been saying the same thing,” Skermo responded.
“Remember Pete?” he asked.
Martinez then told Skermo that his former coworker who used to visit Skermo had retired and moved to North Carolina.
“So many people have left,” she said.
Martinez said that Boar’s Head cafeteria wasn’t always open during his shift, which meant that he stopped by Tina’s Place about twice a day. It didn’t hurt, he said, that Skermo keeps the prices low.
“You can get a full breakfast here for under $3,” he said.
Three dollars at Tina’s can actually go pretty far. For less than the price of a small latte at Starbucks, customers before 11 a.m. can get either two eggs any style or pancakes, both with their choice of sausage, ham or bacon, toast or potatoes, and juice or coffee.
The beverage is extra after 11.
Isabelle Davis, a twentysomething in thick-rimmed glasses who moved into the neighborhood about a year ago, sat in the back of the diner with her friend. When she’s not working at her office manager job, she moonlights as a program director for an online radio station.
Even as Williamsburg’s brunch scene creeps toward Bushwick with gourmet Bloody Marys and fancy baked eggs, Davis said Tina’s Place was consistent and not ironic in any way. She appreciated it as one of the few places left in the neighborhood where everyone could feel welcome and at home.
“A lot of new places don’t cater to such a wide socioeconomic net,” Davis said as she finished her $2 egg and cheese on a roll. “You see all kinds of folks here. Tina’s is an every day sort of place.”