Bethany’s Airport Diner closes after almost 30 years
What came first on Block Island, the chicken or the egg? Or did Bethany’s Airport Diner spawn them both?
At an average of over three dozen eggs per busy weekend day, after 29 years in operation, Bethany’s Airport Diner has fried, scrambled, boiled, mixed with pancake mix and French toast batter, and otherwise likely cooked in some fashion, somewhere over 2 million eggs.
Sadly, that amazing run is coming to a close this month. And man-oh-man will Bethany Coviello and the diner be missed and for way more than just the huge portions of food heaped on plates daily. Rather, the diner developed a personality and character of its own, like a friend you cozy up to or share your secrets with, because in there, many were spilled. The regulars could be found each morning laughing out loud, always sharing stories, frustrations, and opinions about well, just about everything. Great friendships were spawned, and many an islander found a neighbor who could help them out with a chore around the house where they lacked expertise. How do you replace that?
There’s a night crowd on Block Island, and then there’s the early morning crowd, the one that really gets things done and that crowd cycled in and out each morning around the big corner table, or spread out at the counter, eager to opine on the world’s issues.
“I could squeeze as many as 14 into that corner table,” Bethany herself recounted while reminiscing on a recent afternoon, the place empty of customers and silent. It was like the air had been replaced with something plastic and fake.
Half that corner table has died over the past couple of years, leaving a hole in the restaurant’s soul, as did Bethany’s mom “Ma Chowda” (Pat Cambell) in just the past two weeks after a lengthy illness. Known for her chowder and chili, both island favorites on cold winter days, mom was part of the glue that kept the place humming and a reason for keeping-on, even through Covid when table and chair spacing made operating daily a chess-match of futility.
Cooking for the seasonal families paid the rent and bills, but it was the year-rounders that grew the place its heart, one calendar day at a time. And the incredible memorabilia on the walls recount many of those characters that brought the place its life each day. Whether it was the Highway Dept. heading off of a shift that could rely on a hot pot of coffee, or the early birds eager for some socialization on a barren winter’s February morning. Each day, Bethany met the bell with a smile and a touch of whimsy and a willing ear to customers’ problems.
She is quick to credit her parents for her work ethic. They taught her sailing early on as they lived often on the water in a magnificent sailboat pictured on one wall of the diner alongside family photos. Her grandfather, Edward Grant Barrow, was president and part owner of the New York Yankees when Babe Ruth played, and was the first executive to put numbers on player uniforms. Popular with fans, he was the first to allow foul balls to be kept and the first to require the playing of the national anthem before every contest. He also retired Lou Gehrig’s uniform number, the first number ever retired.
The first iteration of the diner was a small trailer-like facility off in the corner of the parking lot with a bay window that looked out. In that building the diner was born, jammed with cigarettes for sale, a car rental facility, parking desk, and the airport counter. The first owner was arrested off of Florida for transporting boat-loads of hash oil and the place was sold to Bethany in a handshake agreement as Bethany walked out the door after being let go for lack of money to pay her. A Block Island story for sure.
For the past 30 years, Bethany perfected the art of quietly feeding islanders, many struggling with issues and finances, and always with a smile. “I bartered with many and I rue the end of the handshake agreement. Everyone goes through periods of struggle and ups and downs and a hot plate of food often meant more than people know.”
And that is what she’ll miss. Not the daily grind of running a business, the ordering of the food supplies, the planning of menus, but the camaraderie of friends and loyal employees that have shared something unique, something that cannot be bought. “The knights of the round table” as she referred to her regulars rattling off a conga line of names, her voice trembling a bit with emotion as she recalled each, a list that kept on and on as she circled the interior looking at photos and collectibles, many donated, bringing character to the place.
But Covid took a nasty toll on her and the business over two long years. In fact, on this eerily quiet day sitting at the counter she is still not 100 percent back from the virus. That combined with her mom passing, her lease being up and The Rhode Island Airport Corporation doubling her rent while imposing more requirements on the hours she has to be open year-round, all the while placing restrictions on what can be done with the exterior, it is simply time to call it a day. “Eggs, toast and coffee used to cost $2.99, but with the new rent, it would have to be $11.99 and I still might not make any money. That’s crazy,” she lamented.
So what’s the next chapter? For sure some downtime. A respite from the endless mental grind of seven days a week operations, year-round. “I’m no longer a spring chicken,” she said smiling, the analogy of the eggs and the chicken coming to mind. “I’ve got my kids in high school and I want to spend some more time with them, spend more time relaxing with friends out here without constantly worrying about tomorrow morning.”