Why I Quit Corporate Life to Open a Diner in Maine

It hit me one day in 2005 walking up Eighth Avenue on my way to work at NEWSWEEK. During my bus ride from New Jersey, I'd been reading the online edition of the Portland Press Herald, the paper from my hometown in Portland, Maine. For months I'd been following the story of a local landmark diner, closed for several years, that was being sold by the city to someone with a plan to bring it back to life. That morning, I read that the pending deal had fallen through. And somewhere during my walk from 42nd Street to 57th Street, I decided to buy it.

Since then I've traveled thousands of miles back and forth from New Jersey to Portland, endured countless meetings, filed numerous applications—and today, I find myself the proud owner of the newly reopened Miss Portland Diner.

Why would a successful executive give up a 31-year publishing career to open a diner in Maine? It's a question I've heard many times lately. It's especially relevant because although I'm 55 years old, I still have four young daughters who'll require financial support for years to come. Add in the fact that a very high percentage of restaurant startups fail within the first year, and that I'm reopening during a serious economic crisis, and the whole project may sound a bit dubious.

Part of the urge to do this stems from sentimentality. I'm someone who never lost touch with where I came from. I grew up a half mile from the diner, and for 35 years my parents ran a tavern not far away, serving beer, sandwiches and daily specials. And although I was hardly a regular, I remember eating at the Miss Portland diner a few times as a teenager. I left Portland in 1977, but I've continued to be intrigued by how this old industrial seaport has been transformed into an inspiring, upbeat place.

I was also seeking to escape what had become the ultimate rat race. After years at the same job, one day began blurring into the next—it was the same endless cycle of early mornings, late nights, long commutes and little time left to do all of the things we all wish we had more time for. I wanted to control my own schedule, my success and my sanity.

As I thought about how Portland would react to the reopening of the diner, I recalled the renovation of the old Portland Observatory. As kids, we used to stare up at the observatory, dreaming of the view from the top. But we were never able to ascend because the stairs were broken. In 1975, the city began restoring the observatory. On my next trip to Portland I finally made the climb and experienced a view much better than I had ever imagined as a kid. I envisioned residents who held fond memories of the diner reacting the same way when it reopened.

Believe me, I didn't go into the project with some illusion of grandeur. I am well aware that a switch from corporate life in the big city to owning a diner that opens at 6 a.m. won't be easy. But my heart told me it would be worth the challenge.

And what a challenge it is. Financially, I've gone from counting someone else's money to being accountable for every dime going in and coming out of this business. The purchase price, the licensing fees, the startup costs, the working capital—it adds up to a significant financial commitment, though I didn't drop every last dime into the project, and my family will survive even if the venture doesn't work out. Emotionally, though, I've given up the safety of my day job and created one that is all consuming. I'm also uprooting my family, which will require acclimating to a new neighborhood, a new school system and new friends.

It's said that nothing worth having ever comes easily. Not only have I endured the process of starting a new business, but I've also managed to start turning my life—and my family's life—in a new direction. Will it be all worth it in the long run? I don't know. But already, there have been psychic rewards: in our first week of business, customers drove from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts just to eat at the diner that was once so dear to them. And no matter how this new venture turns out, I know I'd rather take the risk rather than to not pursue it and never be able to tell whether it would have been a success. The move to this new and better life does not come without many sleepless nights. It's a good thing I know an early-morning breakfast place that has a great plate of corned-beef hash and lots of freshly brewed coffee.