Frank and Mary’s Diner in Cortland closed only last week, but signs of its closure may have started following the death of former owner Thomas Hartnett in 2019, Joshua Hartnett, his son, said Thursday.
“It was probably a long time coming,” Joshua Hartnett said. “It wasn’t our dream or passion, but we had that obligation to keep it going for Tom’s legacy.”
The restaurant closed March 24 after 15 years of being owned by the Hartnetts, said Cyndi Hartnett, Thomas Hartnett’s wife. The diner closed unexpectedly that day as the sole cook left for another job, she said.
As the diner was already struggling with fewer customers due to the pandemic, and not having the same knowledge and passion of operating a restaurant as Thomas Hartnett had, the mother and son decided to close.
“It’s always disappointing to lose a longstanding business like that, but we thank them for the years they have served the community,” said Bob Haight, the president and CEO of the Cortland County Chamber of Commerce.
Haight said he didn’t have a favorite meal from the diner but said that having had many meetings over breakfast there, the diner provided good comfort food and was well loved.
“It was a Cortland institution,” he said. Cyndi and Joshua Hartnett took over the restaurant after Thomas Hartnett died in 2019, she said.
“Neither of us had the experience, leadership, charisma, knowledge … name a quality and we didn’t have it,” the two said in a statement on the diner’s Facebook page. “Not like he did. Tom was the reason the restaurant flourished. But we also knew how important the diner was to Cortland and the SUNY alumni. We hoped to do our best for everyone using the foundation Tom gave us.”
The lack of restaurant knowledge hurt the two and they had to lean on the abilities of the staff more, which also hurt the diner, the statement continued.
COVID-19 added more problems as the restaurant lost revenue and received limited new job applications.
As the pandemic took hold of the city, SUNY Cortland students, who made up a big part of the customer base, came less often, Cyndi Hartnett said.
Before the pandemic, she said, laughing, “You would get the group that would come at 2 in the morning and then come back the next day.”
Cyndi and Joshua Hartnett as well decided to give the money made from the Pay it Forward wall — where people could pay in advance for a meal for someone who didn’t have money — to a charity.
The restaurant was opened by Frank and Mary Hickey in 1985, said Sophie Clough, a collections and research assistant at the Cortland County Historical Society. It had been diners under different names — including Jim’s Diner and Lester’s — dating back at least to the 1950s.
Frank Hickey had worked at Lester’s, which was across the street at the time, starting in 1954, shows a 1986 Cortland Standard report. He worked there for about a decade before starting his own restaurants, but returned to buy the diner in 1985 and expand it.
Cyndi Hartnett said she’s looking for part-time work as she plans to semi-retire.
Joshua Hartnett said for the short term, he’ll find whatever work he can but has a degree in professional writing and is learning how to use video editing software, so he may look for work involving those.
The two were thankful for the years of patronage.
“We just want to thank our customers,” Cyndia Hartnett said. “We’ll miss them dearly.”
“I hope the next owner loves Frank and Mary’s as Cortland loved Frank and Mary’s,” Joshua Hartnett said. “It meant a lot to Cortland.”