It was nothing short of an agonizing decision.
Marty Colegrove, who operated a unique sports-diner in downtown Waterloo, recently shut down Coach’s without much fanfare. He didn’t take to Facebook to air grievances. He didn’t make a last-minute plea for more customers. Colegrove says the decision to close quietly was one made out of respect for those who had been loyal over the last two years.
The diner closed permanently in early-December. Colegrove, a veteran, and Romulus native remembered the last few weeks his diner was open. Unfortunately, shutting down had become part of an ongoing conversation over the last several months. “We had our regulars,” he said. “But, it was always numbers.”
“It just became too difficult financially to support the expense and maintenance of running the business,” he said. Colegrove said that with expenses in the kitchen - which included maintenance costs on equipment even though he didn’t own it played havoc with the bottom line. “We’d get a win one day, then the next walk in and something’s broken,” he recalled. That grind made continuing the fight difficult.
But he did for months, even as things continued to get worse. Near the end, the diner lost a refrigerator and ice machine in the same week. The refrigerator was packed with a full-order of food that had just been delivered. To make matters worse, the breakdown occurred days after spending hundreds to fix an ice machine.
“Why don’t you just buy a new one,” Colegrove recalled someone saying. The question was posed to him in good faith, but he couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s thousands of dollars!” he recalled thinking. It was thousands of dollars the restaurant didn’t have laying around. “There’s no money tree in our backyard. Wish I had a couple of those seeds,” he quipped.
Colegrove’s personality was as much part of the diner’s identity as the food served inside. The sports-themed diner played to families. On Facebook, Coach’s Diner had a 4.9 out of 5.0 star rating. Dozens of reviewers left comments of support and excitement about the food, atmosphere, and family-friendly concept.
“It absolutely should have worked,” Colegrove said. When he dreamed up the concept - it was a simple combination of things that worked well together. Between the access to live games on a number of televisions, satellite radio, and a place where families could hang out together. “The food was pretty good, too,” he added while laughing.
Customers agreed, too.
A check of the diner’s Facebook Page showed countless 5-star reviews. Praise for the food, the atmosphere, and of course, Colegrove, who was as much a part of the environment people experienced at Coach’s as the sports memorabilia itself.
“If I could have done it by myself, I would have,” Colegrove said after the dust settled on what closing meant. “We spent almost every day at the restaurant for two years, we gave this thing everything we had, and if you were someone else telling me that this didn’t work -- I wouldn’t believe you. It should have worked.”
But expenses piled up, and the cost of simply operating kept getting more expensive. It showcases a unique problem for restaurants, or small businesses in general, who open up in communities that don’t have a guaranteed volume to accommodate or support operation costs. On paper, the Main Street diner should have been a success. It’s centrally located, had favorable reviews, and an owner who was willing to do almost anything to keep the ball rolling.
“When people said we were closed too much -- we opened more hours,” Colegrove recounted. “Then we sat in an empty restaurant waiting for people to come in.” Being open for hours and only seeing a few customers wore down those inside the diner. Colegrove said it wouldn’t have taken many more customers to make sustainable, but more consistency was definitely necessary. “We would have a good day, and then two- or three- where you’d wonder if our sign was still on the building,” he added.
As for the notion that competition ultimately played the biggest role in Coach’s eventual closure - Colegrove doesn’t buy it. “There’s thousands who live in Waterloo, and the area,” he added. “Over 30,000 that live in the County. We had customers who traveled from Romulus, Geneva, and other places, but at the end of the day we needed more local traffic.”
Not much more, though. Another 30 to 50 per week could have been enough to make a difference. “Running a business is numbers,” he reiterated. “Obviously this is a concept that has potential.”
Of course, there were other factors too, which contributed to a difficult business environment. Like the fact that Colegrove was leasing space, instead of owning it. “We were responsible for making improvements inside, and also responsible for fixing any appliances that broke. But we didn’t own it,” he said.
In part it all contributes to why Colegrove, while disappointed, is thankful for the opportunity. He also remains optimistic that it’s a concept that could work elsewhere. “If a few things were different, the outcome of our business might have been different, too,” he explained, thinking back on the two year endeavor.
For now though, the Romulus native is appreciative of the customers who did support Coach’s, as well as the people around him, who understood that continuing forward in that location just wasn’t a possibility.