By Lydia Wheeler
Call it what it is, a quirky greasy spoon. Ted Warren won't mind.
His diner, Charlie's Cafe, on Granby Street in Ghent, he said, is a place for people with white, blue or no collar at all. When he purchased the property in 2007, Warren became the fourth person to own the now-breakfast and lunch spot that has been feeding Norfolk since 1983 and he hopes its loyal customers will follow him 22 blocks when he moves the business in September.
Charlie's new home will be where the Veneziano restaurant in Riverview is now. Warren is purchasing the 6,000-square-foot property from the Loiercio family for $360,000. The closing date is scheduled for Sept. 1.
Due to health issues and a stagnant economy, third-generation owner Orlando Loiercio is closing the Italian restaurant after 67 years on Aug. 25.
"My goal was to go 75 years in business," he said. "But we figured it might be best to finish on a good term."
When he put the building on the market in June, Loiercio was specific about the buyer - no chains, no corporations, no restaurants. But he changed his mind when he heard it could be Charlie's.
Warren plans to keep Loiercio's employees, about 10 in all, as well as some of Veneziano's original decor - at least one of the oil paintings covering the restaurant walls and the letter "V" from the original Venice sign.
"I'm happy we were able to make this transition without a lot of employees losing jobs," Loiercio said, "and he's going to keep it somewhat intact."
With plans to expand and offer a dinner menu that includes classic Italian dishes and pizza, Warren said he'll need the extra, experienced staff.
Charlie's Cafe will open first in the space formerly home to Highs Ice Cream next to Veneziano. The dining room, which will be renamed Charlie's Riverview, won't be ready until Thanksgiving.
Warren is planning to turn a separate building in the back of the property, now used for storage, into Charlie's River Brew - a brew pub that sells home-brewed, gluten-free beer made from grits.
"When you have a business like this, to make money you have to have two or three," Warren said.
Renovations of Veneziano are expected to cost about $200,000.
In its current 1,200-square-foot location, Charlie's can seat 80 people at a time, half inside, half out. It's not enough space for the little diner that cooks 1,800 eggs from Saturday to Sunday and has seen its fair share of celebrities, including Tom Hanks last year.
Charlie's is a neighborhood place, but Warren said the neighborhood is getting smaller and smaller. There's a bank to the left and newly built apartments and a soon-to-be Chick-fil-A to the right for which construction is scheduled to begin in September.
"And we're bursting at the seams," he said. "Business is so busy, I can't expand anymore unless I go up."
When asked if he's worried about losing his Ghent clientele, Warren said, without a doubt.
But it's going to be the same food, the same prices, just 22 blocks away and most of his customers drive anyway, he said, as he slipped out of the back booth and pulled an old framed picture off the wall.
"These two guys are both named Charlie," he said pointing to the men behind the glass. "They drive up from Elizabeth City every Saturday to have breakfast."
Lifelong friends Charlie Gordon, 88, and Charlie Lane, 89, have been Charlie's customers for more than 15 years.
"He drives with me every Saturday," Gordon said of Lane, when reached by phone Wednesday afternoon. "There's not too many we've missed."
They remember the original owners, Charlie Ellison, and his mother Gladys, when it was sold to Kathy Lawless of Norfolk and then sold again to Warren.
The trip up from North Carolina for breakfast takes exactly one hour and they always arrive within a minute or two of the restaurant opening at 7 a.m.
"We have a good time," Gordon said. "I love Norfolk, always have loved Norfolk."
Over the years, the Charlies got to know other early-bird regulars, including Ellie and Paul Lipkin, who live around the corner, and Faye and Bob Stewart of Chesapeake. The six of them now eat breakfast together on Saturdays. Gordon loves his eggs and corned beef harsh.
"They burn it just right," he said jokingly. "With a couple of eggs and grits, that's as good as it gets."
When Warren moves the diner in September, Gordon said, he and Lane will follow.
"I'm going to charge him $1 a week to make up the gas," he said with a laugh. "You get used to a place after all these years. I'm sure there will be some nostalgia there, but we'll get over that. It's going to be fine."
What will become of the building, which first opened as Swanky Franks Hotdogs in 1983, has yet to be determined.
It could stay open as a Charlie's Cafe, Warren said, if he finds an investor and the right person to run it.nib