Heartbroken owner of Blue Plate Diner feels community's love

· The Pulse

As she prepares to close the Blue Plate Diner for good, owner Rima Devitt can't help but wonder what would have happened if her restaurant hadn't been pushed out of its longtime home on 104 Street.

The 18-year-old restaurant moved in 2019 to make way for the proposed Mackenzie Tower development. The project at 10145 104 St. was cancelled, and the building is now the home of Seoul Fried Chicken. Seeing another restaurant in Blue Plate's old spot has been "a bitter pill to swallow," Devitt said.

"It breaks my heart. I love that space," she said. "I used to sweep that whole block and pick up the garbage and talk to people. And I just feel sad about the fact that the building is still there, and maybe we didn't have to move."

Devitt and co-owner John Williams initially looked for another location on 104 Street, but only found smaller, pricier spaces — a reality that is still limiting business development in the community, she said.

"All those spaces are still empty. They're still sitting there. It's disturbing because there's so many empty spaces for businesses, downtown, and other areas in Edmonton, and they're charging what they're calling market value for these spaces that just isn't affordable for people who want to operate a little independent restaurant or whatever."

They found a spot at 12323 Stony Plain Rd. instead, but it was hard to get traction there, and then COVID hit, devastating the restaurant industry. Now people are dining again, but the cost of food is up, rent is still a lot, and government support put in place during the pandemic is gone.

"Everyone's just on this hamster wheel trying to survive right now," Devitt said. "We're certainly not the first restaurant to collapse under this type of pressure. We're definitely not going to be the last."

The announcement of the impending closure was followed by an outpouring of condolences and stories from supporters on social media. Alongside posts mourning the loss of a favourite dish were memories of first dates, business lunches, and the eclectic decor, illustrating the personal connection many Edmontonians had with the restaurant.

"I've just been trying not to cry for the last several days since we made the announcement because every time I pick up my phone and read something..." Devitt said, her voice wavering. "A lot of these people I know, I've built relationships with them over the years, and my coworkers have built relationships with these people over the years."

A portrait of Blue Plate Diner owners John Williams and Rima Devitt, above a picture of the chalk sign reading "Thank you for 15 amazing years, 104 St. community" and beside a picture of the patio on Stony Plain Road

Blue Plate Diner owners John Williams and Rima Devitt were sad to leave 104 Street in 2019 but did their best to make a go of it on Stony Plain Road near 124 Street. (Blue Plate Diner/Instagram)

These relationships are what have made the Blue Plate Diner stand out in the Edmonton restaurant community.

"I think that in this current culture, people are really lonely and isolated," Devitt offered. "It's so easy to think about our neighbours, and people walking by on the street, and see just 'the other.'"

The values that guided the Blue Plate Diner provided a reprieve from the impersonal and alienating elements of city life, striving to create a space where people could "be treated like a member of the community, or like family, and be treated with kindness," Devitt said.

"That was a really a touchstone of how I wanted to operate my business, to grow a neighbourhood gathering place."

There is no definite final day for the Blue Plate Diner, but Devitt hopes it will stay open until the end of August. Meanwhile, Williams moved on to the Italian Centre Shop in June.

Devitt said she's not saying goodbye forever — she knows herself too well to think she'll stay still for long. What that looks like, she hasn't yet decided. For now, she wants to stay in the moment, to enjoy what is left and what the diner has given her over the past 18 years.

"When customers came through our doors, it was like I had been preparing for the party, and I wasn't sure if anyone would want to come. The fact that people wanted to come in, and they felt welcome, and they felt comfortable. It was such an honour. I almost feel like my heart's going to burst every time I think about something like that."