Downtown Covington Diner Writing Final Chapter After 30+ Years
Written by Michael A. Monks, editor & publisher
Hanging prominently on the wall on the other side of the counter at Old Town Cafe is a large piece of art of, originally, dubious quality.
"He never mentioned that he was not very good at doing faces," said Debbie Bonfilio, who owns Old Town with her husband, Frank Bonfilio, of the "starving artist" who pitched his talents to them on a whim.
"He told us that later," Frank said.
The couple ponied up six hundred bucks for the commissioned piece, which arrived to their great disappointment.
"When he brought it in, I was like, oh my god," Debbie said. The artist took it back to make some repairs and held on to it for over a month, the couple said. "Then, when he brought it back, it was worse."
The piece was supposed to show Frank and Debbie at the counter of their popular downtown Covington destination, a scene witnessed almost daily since 1988 by countless customers, including prominent citizens, elected officials, civic leaders, nearby residents, visitors, and workers, who come in to find Frank at the grill and Debbie at the register or waiting on customers.
But it was a terrible painting, they said.
"I was going to put it in the bathroom," Debbie confessed. But a connection through neighboring Klingenberg's Hardware put the Bonfilios in touch with another artist who was willing to do a fix.
That expansive touch-up pleased the Bonfilios and no longer led Frank to want to burn it on Pike Street.
"It's been a good conversation piece," Debbie said.
"People will come in and say, oh, I love that picture, who did it? I tell them, his name is on the side," Frank laughed.
The end of Old Town Cafe nears
The apron seen on Frank in the painting and in real life, in the restaurant, will soon be hung up for good. At least, the Bonfilios hope.
Their prized diner, which has served breakfast and lunch since Ronald Reagan was president, is for sale.
"I was always ready. He wasn't," Debbie said.
Frank said that his decision to explore retirement came after the couple opted to end the catering side of its operations, which was run out of the basement of the one-story brick building.
"The hospitality business now, people are changed, people are different," Frank said. "I hate to use this word, but they're getting nasty."
"Since COVID, people have really changed," Debbie agreed.
The pandemic disrupted restaurant operations across the globe, forcing many to pivot to take-out options only last year.
"It's just time to get out," Frank said.
Partners in business and in life
The road to Pike Street was years and many miles in the making.
Frank and Debbie met on the first day of their second year at college. They were students at State University of New York - Morrisville. Both were in line as transfer students to meet with their new adviser, and eventually found themselves working together, in the dining hall, naturally.
"I told my adviser, if you want me to be able to pay for this college, I have to get a job," Frank said. "They said, how about the dining hall? I said, I'm in."
Both Frank and Debbie were studying culinary arts and after graduation, they continued working together for the former Stouffer's Hotels line where Frank was a chef and Debbie was a dining room supervisor.
Their journey from New York - an origin still evident in their accents and the Buffalo Bills memorabilia adorning Old Town's walls - to Cincinnati was due to Stouffer's expanding in downtown Cincinnati (on a site more recently known as home to the Millennium Hotel, which was razed this year). With plans to work in Cincinnati in place, the couple were moved to Louisville temporarily to work at a Stouffer's location there.
They were in Louisville for a year before a transfer opportunity arose in Cincinnati.
"When they transferred, they transferred him, and not me," Debbie said. "A thousand-room hotel and no job for Debbie."
She went to the district manager who told her, "Debbie, you're going to have to decide who's going to be the breadwinner for your family."
"This is 42 years ago," she said. "I said, well, we both got the same education. I'm down here in Louisville working for you for a year. (The manager) said, don't you want to stay home and have kids? I said, no."
And while two weeks later she found out she was pregnant with their daughter, Erin, who works as a server at Old Town, Debbie was brought to Stouffer's in Cincinnati, too, though as a front desk agent.
"That district manager would come in and I'd say, 'You did this to me!'," she laughed.
A corporate change pushes couple to entrepreneurship
"Stouffer's was good for me," Frank said. "I just watched and worked. My mistakes cost them money, so before I did anything on my own, I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing."
He learned a bit about all levels of food service with Stouffer's high-end dining, its bistro, its coffee shop.
"I got a chance to work in all those areas to get an idea of what I wanted to do," Frank said.
The sale of Stouffer's to Nestle in the 1970s eventually impacted the hospitality arm of the corporation. A Stouffer's restaurant would be the same no matter where you were in the country, Frank said, but that changed when new chefs wanted to put their marks on menus.
"That's when I decided, enough of this corporate bullshit," Frank said.
His experience in the hospitality giant, which also introduced him to catering through banquet services, helped him plan his next eventual move.
"I'd like a little mom-and-pop restaurant. I didn't want to get crazy," he said.
After about seven years of additional work, Frank reconnected with a former co-worker from the old Stouffer's days who had opened a diner in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Mt. Lookout and had expanded into catering.
Village Pantry Catering was launched by two couples, including the Bonfilios, on Columbia Parkway on a site now home to a Starbucks. "We made a big kitchen and went after all the catering we could get," Frank said. Business included small at-home parties for 30 to 40 people, to 1,200 people at the convention center.
The partnership ended when business differences emerged and the Bonfilios were about to have their third child while also putting an expansion on their home in Burlington.
"That's when I started hunting around," Frank recalled.
A different couple owned a diner in the space where Old Town now operates. "It was the same thing. They had been here two years serving breakfast and lunch," Frank said.
"I came in one day and it wasn't very busy and I said to him, is this place ever for sale?"
The owner said, sure, anything is for sale, Frank remembered.
"He said, what are you thinking?," Frank said. "I said, around fifty grand. He said, that's ridiculous. I said, OK, the offer is on the table."
Three of four days later, according to Frank, the previous owner called and asked if the offer was still good. "I said what, forty-five?," Frank laughed.
A changing time for downtown Covington
Northern Kentucky's largest city, and particularly its central business district, had for decades been the center of commerce and activity on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River.
But that shifted in the 1970s and into the 1980s, with businesses closing or moving to the suburbs.
"There was nothing down here," Debbie remembered. The Woolworth's, J.C. Penney, Parisian, Sears would all be gone either by the time Old Town opened in 1988, or soon after.
"We survived because of the catering," she said. The couple had taken many of their previous clients with them in the new operation.
They would contract with concert venues like Cincinnati Gardens or Bogart's to bring food and other items to acts coming to town, something they laugh about now because some requests would be ridiculous.
"Not just peanut butter," Debbie remembered. "JIF peanut butter."
"Sometimes running around to find some of this shit - it was tough," she said. "It took us two to three days to get some of this stuff."
"There was a nature store in Clifton I'd go to get stuff I couldn't even pronounce," Frank said. "I'd hand the guy the list and he's say yeah, here it is. Forty bucks!"
But then the Commonwealth of Kentucky took over the former downtown YMCA on Madison Avenue and placed office workers there who would become Old Town restaurant customers. Then IRS employees would come from several blocks away.
A restaurant business was growing.
At times, difficulties emerged internally. "People would steal. Workers would steal," Frank said. "Sometimes I'd come in in the morning and one of our three catering vans would be missing. And back then I knew the Covington Police really well. I'd call and one would say, 'Oh, is your van missing?'"
Another obstacle was the plaza that gave the restaurant its name.
As part of an urban renewal initiative to keep people downtown, the City of Covington and created a brick plaza on this stretch of Pike Street, closing it to vehicular traffic. It was called Old Town Plaza.
Local businesses, including Old Town Cafe, determined that the effort backfired.
"A couple of us went (to the city commission) every month and said, this is killing business," Frank said.
A parking garage owned by the city opened and cars would exit on Pike Street when it was one-way the other way, on the other side of Madison Avenue, headed east.
"Your exit to the parking garage comes out on Pike but it goes the other way," Frank said. "Wouldn't it be easier to have Pike come this way (west) and go right to the expressway?"
When the business owners were successful in changing the direction of Pike Street and removing the plaza, the Bonfilios were gifted with a piece of the ribbon cut during the grand reopening of the street.
The piece of ribbon, along with a pair of scissors and commemorative fan from that day, July 16, 1993, is framed and hangs on the wall inside the diner.
A time capsule
Old Town Cafe has been a distinct part of downtown Covington for more than three decades now. The Bonfilios, too.
In fact, Old Town is colloquially referred to as "Frank's".
"I think most of all, people love coming in here and talking to Frank," Debbie said. He's always at the grill knocking out orders written old-school on tiny tickets stuck above his prep area. "That's what people like. When you see all those tickets and people are asking where their food is, I say, do you see all those tickets?"
The menu has been mostly unchanged - with its diner staples of burgers, hot sandwiches, soups, and salads. (A daily hot special and the salad bar were victims of the pandemic.)
As the restaurant business picked up, the catering side flourished. There was once three servers, a delivery driver, two cooks in the restaurant, two chefs downstairs working on catering, and a list of ten to fifteen people who could work as event servers and bartenders.
One of their most loyal catering customers was famed local banker Ralph Haile, who gave the Bonfilios their business loan. The northeast corner of Pike and Madison is named in Haile's honor.
Much of the inside of the Bonfilio's business hasn't changed in thirty years. The walls feature framed posters from past events that they used to cater, like Summerfair in the 1990s.
The ceiling was repainted. It had turned yellow from all the smoking over the years. When Kenton County adopted a smoking ban for restaurants in the late 2000s, Old Town followed the rule.
"Workers came here for lunch because they could smoke inside," Frank said. "Some would order ahead of time so they could smoke, and we'd bring their food right over."
Debbie explained that the three booths in the front of the restaurant were reserved for nonsmoking.
"Nonsmoking," Frank laughed, noting the small dining area.
But when the law changed, the no-smoking sticker went right on the front door. "We waited until the county did it," Frank said.
"It didn't make us the bad guys," Debbie said.
Now, Old Town has lasted long enough to see a revitalized downtown Covington, with new restaurants and businesses opening nearby, and all those former department store buildings repurposed for new uses, drawing larger crowds back to the city center.
Many of those new residents and visitors, particularly from Hotel Covington, the Bonfilios said, have become loyal customers.
"I'd love to see it stay a diner," Frank said about the future of the Old Town location, which is still for sale. But that's not as important to the Bonfilios now as it was when they first started to explore selling the business and property. Now, they are just ready to return to their Burlington home where they've lived for 42 years, raised three children, and now visit with eight grandchildren.
They just don't want to be in the house together all the time.
"We're too active," Frank said.
"And we can't stay home together," Debbie agreed.
Frank's ideal next act would actually place him again in food service. He'd like to work in a school cafeteria.
"It's easy. You go in - they have two starting times, one at six and one at eight, and you're always done at one," he said. His schedule for the past three decades had him opening Old Town for business at 6 a.m. on weekdays, and early on Saturdays, too. In a school setting, it would be different, and not quite full retirement. "Weekends off, holidays off, summers off. And I could be on the golf course by 1:30."
Debbie's ideal scenario might return her to downtown Covington. She'd like to work at Purrfect Day Cafe, a coffee shop where customers interact with cats who are up for adoption.
The Bonfilios have four cats at home.
"This is Mrs. Doolittle," Frank said, pointing at his wife.
She goes to the Boone County Animal Shelter three to four times a week because she likes being around the animals.
Regardless, the Bonfilios will have more time for themselves and will spend less time waking up early to drive into Covington to flip on the lights and the grill at their diner.
"I was young and dumb," Frank said about how he was able to keep those long, early hours for so many years.
"But," Debbie said, "that's what makes it work."
-Michael Monks, editor & publisher