9331 Tamiami Trl N, Naples, FL
The words “I can’t” aren’t in Joey DiBernardo’s vocabulary. As the owner of Joe’s Diner restaurants, his passion for serving fine food and fully embracing each day inspire his staff and customers.
DiBernardo humbly admits he does it for his family.
“I want to make them proud, and I’m grateful to my parents Andrea and Joe, of the White House Resturant and Mr. Mom’s,” he says, from his second location of Joe’s Diner, off of Airport-Pulling Road.
Back in the days of a slow-paced Naples, residents would flock to the White House Restaurant, and Mr. Mom’s, to make breakfast a family tradition, especially when it came to tasting “The Challenge.”
“The Challenge” was always a delightful menu selection. It’s a combination of eggs, biscuits, sausage gravy, melted cheese, and bacon, all on one plate. Breakfast after church on Sunday meant sharing a laugh with the DiBernardo family, while tasting the deliciousness of Southern home-style cooking. “The Challenge” is still famous at Joe’s Diner today.
Usually, the young Joey DiBernardo would be bussing tables and cooking inside his family’s restaurants, and he grew up in Naples, knowing he would someday be a restaurateur just like his parents. But everything changed for DiBernardo following his graduation from the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Montpelier, Vt.
The crash and DiBernardo’s recovery
“In 1989, I was riding a three-wheeler at my grandparents two weeks after graduation, and I crashed and broke my back. Life was changed. It happened in a flash,” recalled DiBernardo from his East Naples location on Airport Road.
Still, DiBernardo knew obstacles, like not walking again, would not stop his drive to be one of the finest in the hospitality industry.
“I spent three months in the hospital in rehab. I had to prove myself all over again. I went on to work for Delacor, a private food service company, and I served close to 2,000 people a day.”
Yet DiBernardo admits he had his dark days. “Of course, you have your days. I went into sports to overcome everything.”
Beating all odds, DiBernardo established the first National Wheelchair Sports Awareness Program in Seattle, Wash., and he brought the organization to Florida in early 2001.
“It was the premier disability awareness program in the northwest and Florida, that highlighted “post injury” accomplishments and taught students to embrace diversity, to believe in themselves, and treat people with and without disabilities with respect and dignity. Four teams were located in Florida, Idaho, Oregon and Washington,” said DiBernardo.
“I established the Wheelie Team to teach people about disability awareness. I had close to 50 people working for me. Our motto was, “It’s not what happens to your life, it’s what you do with your life.” We would go into schools, and teach the teachers to show everyone how to use wheelchairs to play basketball. It was similar to the Harlem Globetrotters Show, but with wheelchairs.”
Joey returns to Southwest Florida
“In 1999, I knew it was time to come back to Naples. I wanted to be closer to my family again. I started a Wheelie Team in Tampa, and I also became a food manager for the Collier County School District at Barron Collier High School.”
Meanwhile, Joey’s father, Joe DiBernardo Sr., was ready to pass the torch to his son in managing Joe’s Diner in North Naples. “He was getting ready to move on from it, and I said I would buy it,” DiBernardo said.
In traditional Joey DiBernardo style, another opportunity to open a second location came in 2009, when Cheeburger Cheeburger closed in East Naples. DiBernardo instantly knew he had to have the spot. He signed the lease to open the second location of Joe’s Diner in Naples.
For the accomplished chef, it keeps getting better each day in his East Naples location, too. Designing the restaurant with a bright, cheery ‘50s style theme in mind, DiBernardo added 30 more seats in the restaurant, and there is now a dinner menu available. Some of his staff members have been greeting customers at Joe’s Diner for 30 years.
“The history of our past restaurant brings a human touch to this area. My family has been here for 30 years, so people know us, and we care,” explained DiBernardo.
Server Terry Miller agrees.
“I worked for him since he had Mr. Mom’s and the White House back in 1979, and then I opened my own restaurant in Golden Gate, known as the Gathering, which I sold to Mel’s Diner. I get along with him great, and Joe cooks exceptional quality food, and he hires people who do a great job,” Miller said during a busy lunch hour rush.
“He wants it right 100 percent of the time, and he listens to what people want to see in his diner,” said Wendy Prestipino, another Joe Diner’s server.
Meanwhile, great-grandmother Murial Tiech makes lunch at Joe’s Diner a tradition for her three great-grandchildren. “We come here a lot as my one grandchild’s school is around the corner.”
“I like the chicken fingers,” said 5-year-old Hunter Elizabeth as she finished off her lunch, only to be treated to a sundae from her great-grandmother.
Joe’s Diner bitten in economy
“It was a turn-key restaurant when we signed the papers here to open in East Naples. But the economy declined, and we had to reinvent ourselves here to survive,” DiBernardo reflected on his restaurant operations since opening two years ago.
“We kept our food menu the same, and lowered our prices. We took a bite. It was very humbling. Every time the price of tomatoes goes up, we rode it out, and took a hit,” he said. “We also started a catering business at both locations. We had to look at expanding our services to gain extra business.”
Despite it all, DiBernardo’s positive spirit still prevails as he looks to the future with Joe’s Diner restaurants.
“My goal is to have a few more Joe’s Diner’s. It’s always a consideration,” he says. “I want to explore it to the fullest.”
Driven to succeed
Achieving dreams of culinary history will again be reached by DiBernardo, as he was recently selected as one of two graduates to receive the “Distinguished Alumni of the Year Award for 2011” by his alma mater.
DiBernardi will be presented the award, along with Chef Alton Brown, of the Show, “Good Eats,” on the Food Network. The award will be presented by Chef Michel LeBorgne, vice president of culinary affairs and founder of NECI, as part of the graduation ceremony.
“They will be receiving a recognition plaque, and a gift from the state of Vermont,” said LeBorgne. “He was a very good student and he had certain natural talents in the kitchen.”
DiBernardo will be accepting his award in June, in front of 250 hopeful graduates as they are presented their culinary degrees.
“Never give up on your dreams,” DiBernardo said of his work. “No matter what adversities you have at home, never give up.”