More than 50 years after Gus and Sam Derlis began working at the Cromwell Grill, hundreds of loyal customers packed the downtown diner last week to say goodbye.
They shook hands, reminisced and shared cake with the brothers, who have been at the diner almost every day since arriving as teenagers from Greece.
Sam and Gus came to Sarnia in 1965 and 1967 respectively and worked for their Uncle Mike, who owned The Cromwell when it was located across the street.
The diner moved to its current location at 137 Cromwell St. and Sam and Gus bought it in 1970.
When the Derlis’ celebrated 40 years of business, Gus insisted retirement wasn’t on the horizon. But now, after 49 years as owners, the brothers are hanging up their aprons. They’ve sold the business to long-time employee Karen Axani.
“It’s time, it’s time,” said Gus, 70. “It’s been over 50 years, you know what I mean? And Karen was interested and talking about it these last two years.
“We had other offers but I wanted to see what my girl was going to do. I wanted her to have it. I want to keep it going.”
Axani has waitressed at the Cromwell Grill 22 years.
“Everything will stay the same,” she said, noting all 16 staff members are staying on. “We’re going to offer more gluten-free options but nothing else is going to change.”
Axani has been working alongside Gus in the kitchen to learn its trade secrets. She’s also hired a few new cook staff.
The familiar home cooking “the Cromwell” is known for won’t change, Axani promised.
“And Gus and Sam will be around.”
Gus acknowledged changing his daily routine won’t be easy. For more than five decades he’s opened the kitchen by 5:30 a.m. to begin meal prep. He’d take the afternoon off while Sam took over, then return for the evening shift.
Most customers remember Gus in the front of the house, greeting customers and asking if they liked their meals. Sam, a little more reserved, was usually in the kitchen.
“My wife jokes that I married the restaurant, not her,” Gus said. “I was here all the time. You have to be if you want to do well.”
Gus and Sam thanked the community and customers who could always count on a family-style meal, the soup-of-the-day, Gus’ rice pudding and old standards like fries and gravy.
“We had customers who ate here every day, sometimes twice a day. They’d be in here twice and I’d be so busy, I didn’t get to eat at all,” Gus joked.
The secret to success in the restaurant business is good service, good quality and hard work,” said Sam, 72. “But now, it’s time to take it easy for a while.”
Neither brother has a retirement plan.
“They won’t be too far away,” Axani predicted. “Sam is coming in to do the ordering this week. That’s the one thing I haven’t done yet.”
On Oct. 22 she signed the papers to buy the business and threw a retirement party for Gus and Sam. Axani closed the restaurant and invited friends and customers to drop in for coffee and cake.
The place was jammed with well-wishers and people who wanted to reminisce.
“I am 90-years-old and started coming here 40 years ago,” said Maxine Powell. “We’d go to the Navy Club dances every Friday and come here after. Gus is always so friendly. Every time I come in here, he comes over and talks to me.”
John and Kathy Schrader said they’ve eaten regularly at The Cromwell for 15 years, as many as five times a week.
“We’re happy Karen saved the place,” said John. “We wouldn’t want a developer to buy it and turn it into something else.”