The phoenix of Framingham: J&M Diner rises from the ashes

Pictured above is one of J&M's pancakes and two of their popular omelets - the kielbasa and the pepper jack.

It’s 8:15 on a Friday morning. Most college students are still fast asleep or shuffling bleary-eyed to their 8:30 classes wearing pajamas and clutching cups of coffee.

The staff at J&M Diner are also wearing pajamas, but they have been at the restaurant since before 6 a.m., serving coffee and breakfast to hungry customers.

Karen Fiore, co-owner of J&M Diner, said she gets up at four in the morning every day. From then until closing time at 2 p.m., the staff is cooking and serving food and cleaning.

Almost a year after a fire in the Old Path Village Plaza destroyed the original diner, J&M is back in full swing – in a new, bigger location and with an expanded menu.

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According to Karen, after weeks of searching for a new location for their restaurant, the family was growing concerned they wouldn’t be able to find one that would work. She said, “It had to be the perfect marriage of location and parking. Those things are hard to find.” She wondered briefly if she would need to go back to working at a nail salon and was concerned for the future of her family.

Karen said re-opening the diner was “really hard.” The insurance company wasn’t “as helpful” as the family needed. Additionally, everything in the old restaurant had been destroyed and needed to be replaced.

Karen said the family received an outpouring of support from the community in the form of emails and donations. Customers told the Fiores stories about visiting J&M after proposing to their spouse or after the death of a loved one. “All these things really made me and my husband and my kids go, ‘We have a special thing here. It’s not just about the food. It’s about the relationships you build over the years.’”

Then, the location presented itself – a storefront right on Route 9 – 50 Worcester Road.

A big sign reading “J&M Diner” can be seen right from the highway. She said the family was initially nervous about the prospect of a Route 9 location with a high rent price, but it didn’t deter them from re-opening.

She said, “It goes to show you that when you put hard work in, things will work out.”

And after eight months of anticipation, the family was finally able to announce the date of the grand opening – Monday, Nov. 27, 2017.

Karen said, “That was the most stressful day of my life. I would rather give birth 10 times than do that day again.”

She said the opening day was full of excitement and emotion. “We had to open. We were going on four months without money coming in and paying rent.”

She said because the family had initially intended on opening first in September, then October, several employees left because they couldn’t be without work for so long.

New employees were hired and trained but Karen said, “There’s no way to prepare for a day like that.” To everyone at J&M, this was completely unfamiliar territory given the size, the number of tables and how busy it got throughout that day.

The Fiores were stunned by the turnout from the community. “Who knew news people would be coming out? Who knew there would be crowds around the corner opening day?” She said they ended up being short-staffed and her daughter had to help cook meals as the day went on.

According to Karen, the only waitresses during opening day were Karen and her other daughter. The old diner was one room with counter-top seating and 50 seats. The new location now has 100 seats and over 22 tables.

“At the other place, you could see everything in front of you. Here, you can be in one room and not see anything happening. So, how do you communicate without communicating?” she asked.

Karen said the family had to adjust to the new “flow” of the restaurant. “It’s like when you move furniture around in your room and you keep going to where the furniture was before.”

She said part of adjusting to the new space was finding ways to be more efficient. This includes a new program, in which diners give their cellphone numbers and receive a text when a table is ready: “We are almost ready to seat you! Check in with the host to let them know you are here!”

During the weekend, there is always a wait to get a table.

Josh Rumple, a junior at Framingham State, said he visited the diner for the first time after it re-opened. He and four friends went on a Friday morning and it took them an hour to get a table, which he said was “annoying. But they can’t control that.”

He said the food was incredible. “The portions are insane. I got a corned beef hash omelet and I swear it was the size of my 3-year-old nephew. Not only was it enormous, it was delicious. It was some of the best corned beef I’ve ever eaten.”

He added the wait staff was “not super attentive, but just enough to get a refill on coffee and that’s all you really need, right?”

While diners wait to be seated, they can leave or spend their time eyeing some of the abundant memorabilia.

At the entrance, a life-sized statue of Betty Boop holds a chalkboard that reads: “Please Wait to be Seated.”

A framed photo of the Fiore family – Karen, Dave, Juliana, Mihlan, Simone and manager Libby – hangs on one of the lavender walls.

The diner was established in 1998 by Karen and Dave Fiore. The name is a tribute to daughters Juliana and Mihlan. After Simone was born, the counter was dubbed “Simone’s Counter” as it was too late to change the diner’s name.

According to Karen, Dave has been in the restaurant business for “forever,” working jobs from pastry chef to co-owner of the diner. Karen herself is a professional singer and owned her own nail salon.

To the right of the picture is a whiteboard with daily menu specials. That Friday, they were: “S’mores Hot Chocolate Deluxe,” “Loaded Home Fries” and “Chocolate/Strawberry/Caramel Iced Coffee.”

One relic from the old restaurant survived the fire – the sign that used to hang outside J&M Diner. Now, a little worse for wear and singed at the edges, the sign is displayed on a wall.

New memorabilia covers every wall – some sentimental, like a framed T-shirt featuring Betty Boop dressed as Rosie the Riveter given to the Fiores by a customer.

Other décors simply bring humor to the diner – sitting on top of a coffeemaker in front of Simone’s Counter is a cereal box labeled “Colon Blow,” with the tagline “THE high fiber cereal.”

One sign reads: “Attention. $5 charge for whining and $100 charge for whining about the whining charge.” Another is of a smiling woman clutching a pot of coffee with text below reading: “If you’re not shaking, you need another cup.”

As if customers could forget about the food, pictures of crowd favorites line the walls – everything from piles of hash browns to French toast to J&M’s Phantom Gourmet-reviewed eggs benedict.

The popular eggs benedict is poached eggs laid over homemade English muffins, all slathered in tangy, homemade Hollandaise sauce.

FSU senior Andrew Dabney ordered the barbecue omelet and a hot chocolate during his first visit to the diner. He said while the wait was long, the food and service made up for it. He said his hot chocolate was “the most decadent thing, with marshmallow and crushed up candy cane. It looked like it came straight off the Polar Express.”

With a new location came a new expanded menu as well – adding waffles, organic homemade juices and loaded home fries. The loaded home fries are piled with onions, scallions, bacon and topped with melted cheese.

The menu, designed by daughter Mihlan, features a smiling waitress carrying a tray with steaming hot coffee and pancakes. The menu reads: “The Fiore’s J&M Diner. The way things used to be.”

Mitch Rogers, of Natick, has been a regular at J&M since before the fire. He sat at the counter and ordered coffee and an egg white omelet. Minutes later, he was served a steaming hot cup of local Hogan Bros. coffee in a glass mug.

Rogers said he has been “blown away” by the expanded menu with old favorites that still taste the same. He added the Wicked Sinful French Toast is “absolutely incredible. It’s mouthwatering.”

The dish is a cinnamon Danish, grilled in butter and cinnamon, drizzled with icing by a heavy hand and dusted all over with powdered sugar.

He said, “The new space is amazing. With this diner, every morning is like family. You feel like everyone here is family and the amazing thing is that the whole Fiore family works here.”

He said he was surprised he was able to get a seat as soon as he walked in. “This is the first time I’ve been here and there hasn’t been a line.”

Bill Lynch, a Framingham resident, said, “I’m thrilled they re-opened. The new space took some getting used to, but I’m thrilled to see they expanded the menu and hired more staff.”

Janet Dygert of Framingham said, “The food is delicious. The staff is amazingly delightful, and the Fiores are a great family.”

David Stewart, of Shrewsbury, said, “The sweet potato hash is the single greatest breakfast ever.” He grabbed a white plastic bag from the empty seat next to him and joked, “And then you can chase it down with a little Southern Comfort,” as he pulled an unopened bottle of whisky from the bag.

Dina and Matt Kobelski know the Fiores through the CrossFit community. Dina said the Fiores are a “great family. This diner isn’t like all the chain restaurants around here. It’s nice to support a family-owned business.”

Matt added, “We gotta come here for the sweet potato hash, of course.”

Lauren Sheehan was passing through Framingham and decided to bring her friend Damien Bride, whom she had just picked up from the airport, to J&M. She ordered the French toast. He ordered an omelet.

Bride said, “I literally just got off a plane from Annapolis. I’ve never been to J&M, but I was so hungry, and she took me here. It’s delicious, and the diner is beautiful.”

Sheehan lives in Southborough and has known the Fiores her whole life. Back in elementary school, she would sell Girl Scout cookies outside the old storefront. “I’m so excited they re-opened.”

Karen said, “Even if you’re not blood – you’re family here.”