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Food in the Finger Lakes: Penn Yan Diner

The Penn Yan Diner has been a staple in downtown Penn Yan for more than 90 years. While ownership has changed hands several times over the years, some things have remained consistent. For owners Carrie and Sean Ahearn, they simply call themselves stewards of the diner. Their goal is to simply preserve the history of this quaint diner located in downtown Penn Yan, while ensuring that their customers — from near and far — have a great experience every day.

The Penn Yan Diner only seats 28, but a line is often extending out past the front door of the restaurant, according to Penn Yan residents and the owners. The pair has experience in the business, too, as Sean operated a chain restaurant for years before ever considering purchasing the Penn Yan Diner.

The Beginning & Turning Point

It was 2012 when Sean Ahearn drove by the property and saw that it was for sale. When the pair found out the asking price, they knew that it was going to be worth the investment. While the first few months of business were slow, things picked up late in the spring of 2012. Sean and Carrie talk about that hallmark day, which went down as a true turning point for the Penn Yan Diner. The two restaurants next door to, and across the street from the Diner had lines extending far outside. Meanwhile, the Diner was empty, with exception to a couple dedicated customers. The problem was the reputation the Diner gained over the years with poor management. It was a new day though, and as Sean watched customers wait for as much as 45 minutes — he felt something had to be done. He went outside and made a pledge to a handful of customers who were patiently waiting in line on Mother’s Day.“Come in here and eat breakfast — and if you don’t like it — it’s free.” Sean Ahearn made the proclamation that still stands to this day. For those who visit the Penn Yan Diner — if they don’t like what they order, they will accommodate them. Penn Yan Diner

A Simple Philosophy

According to Carrie, it comes down to simply doing everything you can to making the customers experience as good as it can be while they visit. That’s an arena the duo delivers on, too. The menu is filled with items that are made from scratch and done so with “tried and true” recipes. Carrie and Sean say what they’ve accomplished at the Diner wouldn’t be possible without their children. While they have formed a large family, with friends of their children being regulars in their kitchen at home — feeding 10-15 people on the fly became something the pair was used to. Not only that, but it gave them plenty of experience for trying out new recipes.

A Menu from Home

Most of the recipes they use in the restaurant, are the same recipes they use in their home, so the Penn Yan Diner has become known for home cooked food that is prepared right in front of you.

Walking into the Penn Yan Diner is a trip down memory lane. Not just because of how small the diner is, but how unique the experience really is from start to finish. Walk in the door and the first thing you’ll notice is decor and a setup that looks like it was staged from the hay day of diners in American Culture.

The food doesn’t disappoint, either. For me, the Sean prepared a specialty of theirs — named after one of their children. It was called, “The Chris” and featured two eggs with toast and the Diner’s exclusive slow boiled corned beef hash. The brisket for the Diner’s corned beef starts with a 7 hour slow cook, which makes for beef that truly is among the most tender you’ll find.- Check out the full menu at PennYanDiner.com

The Flood of 2014

In 2014, the village of Penn Yan and Yates County as a whole encountered one of the worst flood events in the history of the region. Water poured down Main Street, and made getting around the village nearly impossible. The Diner was spared a big portion of damage, but it remained closed for 11 days after the initial event to clean up. The diner level of the restaurant just saw a few inches of water, while the basement, which features 14 foot ceilings had 9 feet of water inside.To recover the basement, it was a longer process. However, Sean and Carrie knew that they were fortunate through the event. By August of 2014, the basement was back to normal, and the restaurant had long been opened back up after it’s 11 day shutdown.

2016 & Beyond

Carrie and Sean are even embracing new pieces of technology to make their business better, though. Carrie told me that during the summer, and busy days waitresses use iPad Mini’s to take orders, to streamline the process so staff doesn’t feel overwhelmed and patrons aren’t waiting a long time for service.Previous owners did not accept credit cards, according to the pair, which hampered their business for the first few months while diners learned that they would be accepting credit cards. The growth inside the Village of Penn Yan is evident, with the addition of several hotels, and one nearing a grand opening in the coming months. For Sean and Carrie though, it’s about carrying the Penn Yan Diner into the future to ensure that the restaurant can be preserved for another 90 years in the quaint little village of Penn Yan.Check out my interview with Carrie Ahearn in the video below…

Food in the Finger Lakes is a new feature, which will run monthly on FingerLakes1.com. If you know of a restaurant that should be featured on Food in the Finger Lakes, comment below or email Josh at josh@fingerlakes1.com.

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