Modeling tenacity: Still-in-business Tom's Diner earns an Empire Award

Kristen and Rick Strassburg, longtime owner-operators of Tom's Diner on Main Street, received the New York State Senate 2021 Empire Award in recognition of their role modeling to other small business owners during the coronavirus pandemic. State Sen. Rob Ortt, left, visited the diner on Thursday to present the award to the Strassburgs. (Benjamin Joe / staff)

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Tom’s Diner on Main Street was a tried-and-true meeting place for local civic groups including the Optimist Club and the AM Lockport Toastmasters. Since gradual "reopening" of the economy after a lengthy period of lockdown, the popular eatery has had to limit customer capacity to 75%, to ensure sufficient space between booths / seats. But it has survived a year's worth of sudden changes by the policy of owners Kristen and Rick Strassburg to treat people well — staff as well as customers — and trust the favor will be returned.

The Strassburgs were presented with the New York State Senate 2021 Empire Award on Thursday, by Sen. Rob Ortt.

“We started this program last year. We wanted to start recognizing small business, not just restaurants, but any small business,” Ortt said, noting that while the pandemic forced postponement of the program, it also stoked the fire to find small business owners who managed to triumph over all the Covid restrictions, and honor them as role models.

“We put it on our Facebook page, saying, ‘If you know a small business, let us know, we want to hear from you,’” Ortt said. “I know a few, but I don’t know everybody’s story, and one thing we heard about Tom’s Diner is that Kristen and Rick also do stuff for the community.”

Tom’s Diner has boosted local food drives and offered gift certificates for first responders, Ortt learned.

“It isn’t just the fact that they own a business, they give back to the community. And that wasn’t easy, because people weren’t bringing in an income," he said. "It’s one thing to say that things are great, I’m giving back. It’s another thing when you don’t know if you’re going to make it tomorrow.”

The Strassburgs say COVID-19 has made the crash of 2008 seem like nothing but a blip, and they're anxious to see the Toastmasters meeting in the diner again.

“I can’t wait to have them back. The problem is there are 45 of them and with 75% capacity, that’s my whole restaurant,” Kristen Strassburg said. “We would have to have them all over and that’s not conducive to what you want to do. I’m hoping things will keep opening.”

Meanwhile, Optimist Club meetings are set to return to the diner on Wednesdays, which is exciting, Strassburg said, but she knows it's been a long road for the entire business community.

“We’ve all struggled," she said. "To have your profession (attacked)? We kept hearing how we were the cause (of the virus' spread) and then when Governor Cuomo came out and gave the percentages and they saw the restaurants were a very small percentage, it became, ‘What is the justification to be doing that?’ And it’s not just him.”

In the end, Strassburg looks forward to getting back to business-as-usual and wishes every other small business the same.

“It wasn’t just us, it wasn’t just our industry. There’s the trail and tourism industry. We’re all in the same boat. Hospitality,” she said.  “It’s great there’s such a surge coming back now. I just hope we’ll have some normalcy.”

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