It hasn’t changed in years: Open 24 hours, no key for the front door, breakfast any time of day or night, scarred-top twisting stools at the counter and a place where old friends and travelers getting off I-81 alike love to stop.
That’s the Salem Omelet Shoppe. But some things are about to change.
In January the little restaurant at the I-81-Wildwood Road intersection will close for a few weeks and be reborn as Angelle’s Diner, complete with outdoor patio dining and a planned ABC license.
Little Hank Fernandez doesn’t really know what’s about to happen. He loves the Salem Omelet Shoppe so much that he chose it as the location for his 4th birthday party.
Hank, who is now 5, comes before preschool with his Papa, Larry Flores, and little brother, Pete, who is almost 2. Their older sisters, Vivian and Kate, celebrated their birthdays at the Omelet Shoppe, too, with their names on the marquee sign out front.
Flores has been coming to the Wildwood Road-I 81 intersection landmark for more than 30 years – “ever since it opened,” he remembers, “mostly for breakfast.”
When Angelle’s Diner opens, instead of being open 24 hours and mainly known for breakfast and hamburgers, its weekday hours will be 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and be known for homecooking with fresh ingredients for lunch and dinner, too, owner Glenn Angelle believes.
“People don’t have time for breakfast anymore except for weekends,” Angelle said in a phone interview from his home in Cleveland, Tenn. “We used the name change and rebranding in Troutville as our pilot and have done very well,” said Angelle, who owns five Omelet Shoppes including Salem and one in Dublin, and intends to change others. He says he has owned the Salem Omelet Shoppe since the mid-1980s. He bought Troutville restaurant at the I-81-Exit 150 interchange shortly before he renovated it and reopened in January 2017.
Even though Angelle believes fewer people eat out for breakfast, by 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday of this week every seat in the 10 booths, three tables and five counter stools was filled. “Half-price omelet Tuesdays are really popular,” Manager Sara Smith said. Angelle’s Diner will continue the tradition, she reassured a couple from Elliston who didn’t want to be identified by name.
“We come for my ham and cheese omelet with hash browns, and his scrambled eggs and dry wheat toast,” she said. “Sometimes we come for hamburgers or cheeseburgers in afternoons. They’re real good, too,” her husband said.
One thing they’re not sure about for the new diner is the planned beer and wine license. “I guess in the mornings that wouldn’t be a problem,” she added.
Bobby Thompson of Glenvar has been coming for 30 years, too, “for the food and the people.” Friend Michael King, also of Glenvar, comes two or three times a day “mainly to drink coffee,” he says. King isn’t sure he’s going to like the changes. “I may have to move over to the Waffle House,” he said, mentioning a coming restaurant on West Main Street.
“A good percentage of the regulars know each other from coming in so long,” said Manager Smith. “Some come in every single day, and I know what they want to eat when they pull into the parking lot.”
Customer Tommy Habrel comes in on Tuesdays for a cheese steak omelet. His dad, tom Habrel of Roanoke, was eating at the Omelet Shoppe for the first time this week, chowing down on eggs and hash browns. “It’s good food, reasonably priced,” said Tommy. “I get tired of the bigger chains.”
Anton Heindel of Waterford, Wisc., was eating breakfast on Tuesday morning with his brother, Ed Heindel of Salem. “I come to the area three or four times a year, and we always eat here at least once during my visit,” said Anton, who had a ham and cheese omelet with biscuits.
“You can’t beat the view. All these windows looking out at all these mountains,” he added.
Since it was breakfast time, eggs were what most diners were eating. “Eggs are probably the thing we go through the most,” Smith said. “I bought 10 cases of 15 dozen eggs this week.”
Everybody on daylight cooks at the Omelet Shoppe. “We’re all trained to do everything on that line,” Smith said. “Together we can run it with our eyes closed. It makes the work go very, very smooth.”
In addition to Smith, staff are Amanda Harris, Donald Horton, Jackie Owen, Justin Hodges, Ramona Bower, Kelly Moore, Christina Vilagi, Teresa Huffman and Jessica Given. All are in their 20s and early 30s. Smith hopes everybody will be able to relocate to Troutville or Dublin during the construction, estimated to take 90 days.
Smith hopes the regular customers continue coming after the changes. Although she appreciated coming back to “old school ways at the Salem Omelet Shoppe,” she is looking forward to what she saw when she worked at Angelle’s Diner in Troutville. “Different foods, fresh ingredients, for instance, going from lemon juice to fresh lemons.”
Smith has worked in restaurants since she was 18. She’s 28 now. “I just love what I do. I’ve been all over with the company. I’ve been fortunate,” she added. She said she believes having beer and wine will draw in more business.
“I hope the customers will find other things on the menu they will enjoy, besides breakfast items. I want them all to come out and try it, and see how much better it’s going to be.”
Hometown firm G&H Construction of Glenvar will be renovating the restaurant building, Troy Henderson said, as well as building the relocated El Rodeo, which is now on the opposite side of Wildwood Road from the Omelet Shoppe. El Rodeo will be moving to West Main Street, just east of the Wildwood intersection.
On Monday night, Salem City Council set bonds for soil erosion and sediment control and physical improvements for El Rodeo at $54,000, and for Angelle’s Diner at $10,527, with 12 months to complete for each.