Chris and Eirini Prentzas are leveraging online sales tools and customers’ preferences for delivery services to launch My Midnight Cafe and Westmont Food Market.
By Matt Skoufalos | September 10, 2020
When the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shuttered eateries across New Jersey, Westmont Diner owner Chris Prentzas began giving away perishable foodstuffs to his customers.
Faced with the sudden change, he didn’t know what else to do.
“I had all this inventory,” Prentzas said.
“I was expecting to be closed for a year.”
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t throw it in the garbage,” added his wife, Eirini.
The entirety of the food industry was disrupted by the pandemic, from growers and purveyors to restaurants and wholesalers. Amid community spread of COVID-19 and the flurry of rules changes that followed, panic buying, staff shortages, and logistical breakdowns created a demand for alternative ways of getting staple goods.
That’s when the Prentzases had the idea to shift their restaurant operations to a corner grocery. They halved prices across the diner menu, and began offering essentials—bread, dairy, meats, produce, and cleaning products—for takeout and delivery.
The volume of orders swelled with a few social media posts. By April, the diner had implemented an online ordering system, and Westmont Food Market was born.
Customers kept the diner busy enough to retain its full staff until May, when the Prentzases spun off the grocery business into a separate entity, Diana Foods.
“We are among the establishments that have not closed because of the support of the community,” Eirini said.
Westmont Food Market is designed to offer basic household needs, so shoppers won’t find the brand variety they might at a supermarket. They can, however, shop “the most excellent quality of produce,” Eirini said, plus imported goods, from kiwis and olives to Greek desserts “you cannot find unless you go to Astoria.”
Coming soon are lamb and venison from New Zealand and Australia as well as cheeses from France, Greece, Italy, and Spain.
Westmont Food Market offers one-day delivery throughout Camden County, and orders placed made by noon are eligible for same-day delivery or pick-up.
“The longest wait for fulfillment is one day to the next,” Eirini said.
Even after the pandemic subsides, Chris believes there will be an appetite for the service Westmont Food Market provides.
“I think that the way e-commerce is going, it’s going to stay,” he said.
“People like convenience: to stay in their house, order online, and not have to go to the supermarket.”
“As things start getting back to normal—hoping that the second wave of COVID will not turn everything upside-down again—we want to continue growing the market in the right direction,” Eirini added.
In the 30 years that the Westmont Diner has maintained its location at the corner of Haddon and Maple Avenues in Haddon Township, the Prentzas family has worked to keep up with shifting customer attitudes. In 2014, Chris experimented briefly with 24-hour weekend service, even as other diners had discontinued theirs.
Westmont Diner has returned to that idea with My Midnight Café, a 9-p.m.-to-4-a.m. night hawk service catering to those with late cravings. Chris believes there’s an untapped market for people who’ve found their options limited during the pandemic.
“Diners used to be busier at 2:30 in the morning than 2:30 in the afternoon,” he said. Although a lot’s changed since those days, service hours have become even more limited during the pandemic.
“Everybody wants to keep their hours short and get the people to come and eat at those times,” Chris said. “The way I looked at it, there’s nothing open at nighttime except McDonald’s and convenience stores.”
My Midnight Café is only a few weeks old, but it’s already found some traction. Early adopters have included hospital workers and first responders.
“[They] say, ‘Thank God you’re open, we’ve been tired of eating at Wawa constantly,’” Chris said.
The full diner menu is available for delivery, from breakfasts to entrees: omelets, pancakes, sandwiches, burgers, salads, chicken wings, even tacos and pizza.
“And a lot of desserts,” Chris said.
Since the resumption of indoor dining in New Jersey, guests can also enjoy My Midnight Café in person, at 319 Haddon Avenue in Westmont.
The diner is only closed from 4 to 8 a.m. for cleaning.
“A majority of our guests at nighttime are returning customers,” Chris said. “We love our people so much, and they love us back.”