Del Hewlett was 29 years old when he opened his namesake diner on East Broadway, serving up juicy hand-carved sandwiches to his loyal customer base.
His turkey was home-roasted, his pork chops and chicken breasts trimmed with care. He introduced breakfast three years ago and the customers still rave about his coffee and fair prices.
Despite the following and 26 years of hard work, Hewlett will be looking for a new occupation next week and his customers a new café when Del’s Place shuts down, ending a colorful chapter in Missoula’s downtown history.
Times are bittersweet inside Del’s these days, and change isn’t easily embraced.
“Business is continually tailing off,” a frustrated Hewlett said on Thursday. “It started six or seven years ago and it’s become progressively worse. It’s just not viable anymore.”
On this morning, Hewlett is busy in the kitchen bracing for the lunch-hour rush, his busiest time of day. His customers are seated at the counter, surrounded by 1950s memorabilia – records and posters of vintage drive-ins.
Del’s Place was formerly home to the old Bar MG hamburger stand. Back then, Hewlett said, the east-side location was a hopping place. But Missoula has changed around him.
“This was a great location and I made a great living here for many years, but the location left me,” Hewlett said. “I’m on East Broadway, not West Broadway and not Reserve. Everything has left town.”
Hewlett talks of the 1980s as the good times. Forestry was a viable practice, he said, and the lumber mills ran their saws and turned out product.
But over time, the staple industries have gone and the community has changed. His customer base, he said, is ever-dwindling.
“We have a loyal customer base, but it’s just too small and it’s literally dying off,” Hewlett said. “Seven of them in the last year have passed away. They’d been coming in for years.”
David Henifin is sitting at the counter sipping coffee and reading the paper when he considers his morning routine and how Del’s has been a part of it for three years now.
Replacing the diner’s coffee, its potatoes and onions, he said, can’t be done so easily. Replacing the friends he sees every morning may be another matter.
“There are a lot of people that, when I come in, they’re in here day in and day out,” Henifin said. “They know exactly what they’re ordering before they get here. Their prices are the best and the people here are the best. It’s going to be a great loss in the community.”
At its height, Hewlett said, Del’s once employed 14 workers. It’s now down to four, including Denise Friesen, a 15-year employee who has worked at the old-town diner most of her adult life.
As Friesen tells it, she’s been married and raised her children during her tenure at Del’s. After so many years and life events, considering a future outside the diner is an emotional thing.
“It’s hard for me – I broke down a little today,” Friesen said. “It’s also a chance to move on. I’m excited to see what I can put another 15 years in, but I won’t find another coworker like her.”
Friesen points to Sherri Christman, who started here nine years ago as a teenager. It is, she said, the first and only job she’s ever held.
“I’ve gotta go out and look for something else,” Christman said. “I don’t do well with change. This is my comfort zone.”
Martin Kidston is a Missoulian reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.