An iconic local restaurant is no more. Elma’s Flippin 50s Diner closed its doors forever on Nov. 27.
Owner Michelle Bossard cited a variety of reasons for the closure, but said it was ultimately what she deemed a heavy tax burden on small businesses like hers and last January’s minimum wage hike that sealed the restaurant’s fate.
Bossard recalled how she had bought and completely renovated the W. Main building the restaurant occupied about five years ago. Her dream: to create a ’50s-themed diner in Elma like the ones she and her children often stopped at to enjoy while traveling.
“We wanted to bring something different to our town, to bring in some tourism, bring people from out of town … just support our town,” Bossard said.
For a time that vision seemed to have been realized. The diner employed as many as 33 people when it initially opened and enjoyed a strong following, especially among customers from out of town.
The downturn in business became most acute last winter, a time when restaurant patronage is typically down and staff has to be reduced. Bossard said she found herself working many double shifts, seven days a week, and that the schedule began to take a toll on her health and she fell sick.
“I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t keep working all the hours myself,” she said.
Financial strains on the business didn’t help matters, Bossard admitted. She said she always chose to pay her employees before she paid taxes and that resulted in significant late fees that snowballed. Bossard described the federal government and state liquor board as easy to deal with but felt crushed by state taxes. Bossard said she already had significant management experience when she started the restaurant and wasn’t naive about the difficulties of running a business.
“She cared about everybody,” said Terri Waite, the restaurant’s manager for the past several years. “She made sure her employees had what they needed.”
Waite said Bossard always endeavored to pay her employees before taking any money for herself.
Last January’s minimum wage increase to $11 per hour also hurt the restaurant, Bossard said. Feeling unable to raise prices for fear of reduced business, Bossard had to cut staff. She said she wishes the increase had been more gradual.
“That rate increase killed a lot of businesses and it killed mine,” she said, adding she believes it hurt many employees as well through reduced hours.
Bossard said she had envisioned the restaurant as a vital, long-term part of a growing community and expressed disappointment at its failure. She said she sought to occupy her own niche and not compete directly against other local restaurants which she hoped to see succeed alongside hers.
“She came in here with a vision,” Waite said. “She wanted to do something for the community. She even shopped locally for the most part. … She put 150 percent into her employees and this place and the community.”
Bossard is currently in the process of selling off the restaurant’s equipment, though she doesn’t believe she’ll be able to recoup much of what she estimates was an investment of well over $500,000. (Those interested in purchasing furnishings and equipment can reach her through the restaurant’s Facebook page.)
Still, Bossard said she’ll take with her many fond memories of her time with the restaurant, especially of the many people who passed through.
“We got to meet people from all over. We had a lot of really cool people come in here,” said Bossard, listing visitors from around the world.
There were also the local regulars, some as eccentric as they were lovable.
“You got to really get to know people, people that I really didn’t even know lived here. It made my family bigger,” Bossard said.
Bossard said she is also intensely proud of having hired many former convicts and reformed substance abusers when others wouldn’t, most of whom she said worked out well as employees and are now productive citizens.
She also told The Vidette she wishes to express gratitude to her many employees, past and present.
“We really enjoyed what we did, and we’re proud of what we accomplished,” she said.