One day, back a few years, Arlene and Randy Bruinsma were driving along Water Street East in Summerside when the Startlite Diner caught Randy’s eye.
Looking back, he remembers turning to his wife and remarking how nice it would be to own a business like that one.
The couple was living in Calgary, Alta., at the time. They had been seasonal visitors to P.E.I. for many years and, when retirement came, decided to settle here and bought a home in St. Nicholas. Randy had been into arbor care, while Arlene was in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.
But they (OK, mostly Randy) kept coming back to that idea of buying the Starlite Diner.
“We came here to retire, but I couldn’t get this place out of my mind,” he said.
In December of 2016, Randy made good on his idle musing, as he and Arlene purchased the 1950s nostalgia-themed eatery and dairy bar.
“I’ve always sort of dreamed of having a ‘50s diner, sort of all my life. When I seen this – this was it,” said Randy.
There is something about that era, the cars, the music and the pace of life that has always attracted him, he said.
“Gentler times. The lifestyle was different. It was more laid back. You had time to go into a restaurant. Now it’s all drive-thrus, everyone wants things quick. I don’t.”
Ever since the purchase, the Bruinsmas have been working toward injecting new life into the property.
The building had been through a series of managers and owners over the past couple of years and had been closed for several years before that, so it was in need of some care. They closed for almost six months for a renovation project.
They replaced or modified the seating, their counter spaces, kitchen equipment, the dairy bar setup and the general décor.
As far as the Bruinsmas have been able to learn, there has been a dairy bar on the property since 1959, which was called the Softy Freeze. The themed diner was added in the ‘90s.
Despite being built relatively recently, the diner’s designers did a really good job of recreating the look of a ‘50s era café, said Arlene, and they hope to restore that original design while working to improve upon it.
It has been a challenging project. They are trying to keep the decor as authentic as they can, and finding working items from the ‘50s and ‘60s which still function, or are at least in good enough condition to display, is not easy.
Randy has been teaching himself how to fix some of the items included in the sale, like some of the neon lighting or the table-mounted coin machines that let guests choose songs from the jukebox.
He spent a long time trying to get the restaurant’s jukebox working, but in the end could not. They tracked down an authentic ‘50s era replacement from a collector in Quebec, who gave them a discount when he found out the machine was headed for a themed diner.
Despite the challenges though, the Bruinsmas are enjoying their foray into the Summerside business community.
They’re getting to know their regulars and are always looking to attract a few more.
They’re hoping to keep the business operating 12 months of the year, though depending on how things go they may move it to more of a tourist season focused operation.
Either way, they’ll keep building upon their unique little corner of the community.
“It’s a work in progress, there’s still more we want to do,” said Arlene.
“We can dream big.”