It wasn’t so long ago that the Downtown corner of Fifth and Main street was considered to be one of the riskiest corners of the city.
Nickel Diner’s co-owner and chef Monica May recalled those times.
“In 2004, when you walked down Main Street, you didn’t cross Fifth Street,” she said. “You didn’t cross Winston, for God’s sake. It was a no-man’s land. So, when we opened the Nickel, we knew where we were. You had to recognize where you were and note that it was important to be inclusive as opposed to exclusive.”
During the past 13 years, the Nickel Diner has established itself as a tentpole community fixture in its Downtown neighborhood bordering Skid Row. It also garnered an enthusiastic and loyal following among local foodies. May’s now-iconic maple bacon doughnut and her handmade artisanal pastries were the initial standouts on the menu, when the restaurant opened as a neighborhood breakfast joint in 2008.
May and her partner and co-owner Kristen Trattner were among a small group of Downtown pioneers, when the idea of opening the Nickel hatched.
“I originally had a café — Banquette — Fourth and Main,” Trattner said. “(Downtown) was a beautiful little misfit community back in the early aughts, and there was truly a sense of community. The Nickel was this fluke.
“At Banquette, we used to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have access to a real kitchen?’ We could open and really give the neighborhood what it needs, which at that time was a place to get breakfast. As I’ve always said, ‘Eggs after 11 a.m.’ because there wasn’t anywhere else.”
May and Trattner found Nickel’s future spot when it was an abandoned space, the former location of a Mexican restaurant. They stripped the dining room to reveal the high ceilings, wood paneling and tile floors that define the Nickel’s interior vintage charm. The renovation and financing was a challenge.
“We opened in a recession,” May said. “Nobody was giving money to anybody at that time. It took our community. It was a lot of local businesspeople who saw the need and invested in us. That’s how we developed the Nickel. It was microloans and our neighborhood. So we’ve always been this community place.”
That said, those early days taught May and Trattner important lessons that are reflected in the Nickel’s neighborhood role.
“We never started out being community activists.” May recalled. “Back in the day, people said, ‘You have to get a security guard.’ No. What you have to rely on is our generosity of spirit. What we’re trying to bring forth will carry over into how the neighborhood feels about us.”
That combination of trusted community engagement and excellent food informed the Nickel Diner’s primary pandemic pivot and its current operational mode: serving a full brunch menu to the public on weekends, while engineering and operating a robust and effective neighborhood feeding program during the week. It’s proven to be a sustainable model that, in some form, may even outlast the pandemic.
“As we’ve gone through the past year, we’ve closed,” May said. “We’ve opened again. We survived the protests. We survived the looting. It was still always a matter of what does our community need. You rise up to that. I think certainly now, with the pandemic, it’s just become more apparent. Everybody’s needs have just become more apparent.”
May and Trattner closed the Nickel two days before the formal pandemic lockdown order, on the urgent advice of Trattner’s brother, a clinical pathologist.
“We were very proactive,” May said. “We closed the restaurant. We packed up all the food. We gave (our employees) paychecks for the next two weeks.”
The Nickel’s otherwise reliable breakfast and lunch crowd of Downtown office workers and laborers vanished. Once bustling on weekdays, the surrounding blocks had emptied.
“We realized the only way we were going to be able to survive,” May said. “It wasn’t going to be through the PPP loans. It wasn’t going to be opening for two days a week. As we struggle, you come to realize that your survival depends on small gestures.”