As he and his staff looked out the windows of the newly renovated and recently opened Chit Chat Diner in West Orange early Thursday afternoon, shift manager Leo Novakidis couldn’t help but notice a few school buses that were stuck in traffic along with just about everyone else in North Jersey.
Hours went by and they barely moved, he said.
Eventually, the buses inched out of sight, down the hill on Eagle Rock Avenue. And Novakidis and the limited service staff that managed to make it in went back to taking care of the few travelers that came in to escape the traffic mess.
About 8 p.m., the phone rang. It was the West Orange police department.
As it turned out, the buses had moved out of sight, but barely much farther. The West Orange Board of Education was looking for a place the kids could warm up and stretch their legs, the police said, and the board wanted to know if the diner would be willing to take two or three buses of kids.
“We said, ‘Sure, of course, happy to help,’” Novakidis said.
He then told his staff to be ready.
A few buses came. Then a few more. And a few more. Before he knew it, there were nearly a dozen in the parking lot.
“They ended up diverting all of the buses on the road to us,” he said. “By that time, our street had been cleared and most had not been. There wasn’t anywhere else they could go.”
Moments later, there were a rush of approximately 80 kids … heading straight to the bathrooms. Many were high-schoolers, but some were as young as 6, Novakidis said.
Novakidis and his staff sprang into action. They knew the bathroom break was only going to handle one of the issues.
These kids were hungry.
The staff arranged booths and tables in the large dining room in the back of the restaurant for the kids, the drivers of the bus, the school personnel that rode with them and the police that helped make sure they got to the diner.
The servers brought drinks and the line jumped into action.
The menu was easy: chicken fingers and French fries.
“We knew we needed to give them something they would eat — and something we could prepare quickly,” Novakidis said. “These kids were hungry and there were a lot of them. We knew they hadn’t eaten since lunchtime.”
It became a bit of a party. Without the party atmosphere you might expect from 80 or so kids.
“The kids were really good,” Novakidis said. “They were very grateful. They told us they were cold on the bus and they were just happy to get indoors and get some food. They didn’t make a mess or cause a ruckus.
“We just made sure they were comfortable.”
And then the staff started dealing with the parents.
The West Orange board of ed had alerted parents that their kids were at the diner.
That’s when the phone really began to ring off the hook.
Some parents called to thank the diner.
Others were trying to give their credit card numbers over the phone (the diner insisted it was all on the house).
A few just wanted to talk to their kids (you know, because if you have them, you know there’s little chance a teenager would actually think to check in with their parents during such an ordeal).
Novakidis said the restaurant, which had its grand opening in August, was just happy to help the community it serves.
There was just one problem: Parents were not able to get their kids.
Many were struggling to get home themselves. And, if they were home, the roads were so congested, they wouldn’t have been able to reach the diner.
So, the kids hung out. Until about midnight, when they were bused back to their various schools, where many slept last night.
The calls kept coming, with appreciative parents reaching out until 2 or 3 in the morning to owner Gus Katsanos, who was working the overnight shift.
Novakidis, back on duty in the morning, said he had taken a few more calls Friday morning, too.
His response was still the same: Happy to help.
“We were glad to help,” he said. “That’s what you do in a situation like that. The community comes together.
“These were cold, hungry kids going stir crazy on a bus. Who wouldn’t want to help?”