When the coronavirus pandemic forced the Greenville Inn to shut down on March 15, owner Diane Belknap said she and her husband Jim came to see it as an “omen.”
They had owned the restaurant for 23 years, and neither wanted to risk contracting the virus themselves or spreading it to their loved ones. Diane told the Sun Rise during an interview last week that she was working 50-hour weeks between the restaurant and watching her grandson – though she joked he’s “not really a job.”
It took several months to make the final call, but the Belknaps decided to close the Greenville Inn and notified their customers through a June 22 Facebook post.
“Maybe it’s an omen to just say, ‘Let’s retire this year. Let’s put the building, the business up for sale.’ It took us three months to decide,” Diane said. “A very difficult decision, because it’s a family-owned business. My kids were 6 and 10 when I bought the restaurant, and Allison is now an attorney and Jacqueline’s a CPA … They have their own careers established.”
Belknap said that coronavirus is like “Russian roulette,” in that those who catch the virus respond in a variety of ways – from being asymptomatic to exhibiting mild symptoms or ending up in the hospital.
She and her husband pondered whether it was wise to continue with take-out, as if one of them were to fall ill, the other could not run the business alone.
“I said, ‘This is just pushing us into retirement,’” Diane said. “We can’t take anything for granted … So then all our [employees were] collecting the extra $600 a week, if we did decide to do take-out, who am I going to pull off unemployment to come back and do take-out? Is it feasible to order all that food and not know how much to order, how busy we’re going to be? People were afraid to do take-out for a while.”
The Facebook post has received more than 300 reactions and 200 comments, as well as hundreds of shares. Several commenters wished the Belknaps a happy retirement, but it was a bittersweet goodbye as they had enjoyed the restaurant for many years.
“We want to sincerely thank all of our loyal customers, friends, and family that have supported us over the years and all of our wonderful employees that have helped make our business successful,” Diane wrote on the Inn’s Facebook post. “We will miss all of you more than you know.”
She expanded on that sense of community during her interview with the Sun Rise, saying she and Jim got to know all of their customers over the past two decades. Diane worked the front of the house, while her husband was well known in the kitchen for his chicken francaise, scrod francaise and prime rib. She said he’s been cooking since he was 15 years old – a five-decade career behind the grill.
They would watch patrons’ families grow up, from hosting parties from baptism through communion and graduation.
“I know all the customers and I’m there every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Ten-hour days, and I also go in during the week if there’s any type of busy night or a party going on,” Diane said. “I cried, my daughter Allison was in tears, because they grew up there. They worked in the coatroom, they started in the coat room, and then bussing, waitressing, bartending. It was a tough decision. We live in Smithfield, so we know everyone in town. It’s tough.”
Diane said her kids grew up in Smithfield and went to its schools – and both attended Bryant University – while Belknap herself has been a faithful parishioner at St. Phillip’s Church. While Diane said she regrets not being able to serve the town’s loyal customers anymore, she will enjoy running into them while she’s out and about.
She will stay in touch, though. Jim and Diane will also get to enjoy several holidays – such as Father’s Day, Mother’s Day and Easter – during which they have worked in past years.
“I’m going to bump into my customers around town if I go out. It’s a wonderful feeling,” Diane said. “It’s my social life and my job and everything all at once. Some people close, and it’s a different type of business because it’s a social business, where you know everyone personally. The state closed us down and gave us three months to just sit and figure out what we were doing, and that’s when we made the decision for our own safety, for our family.”
Now, as the Belknaps head into retirement, Diane said she will spend more time with her grandson while Jim will spend some time out fishing rather than in the kitchen.
Diane did joke, though, that her retirement may not be set in stone.
“I’ll probably have to get a part-time job,” she said with a laugh. “Because I just have too much energy to retire.”