Legend has it the original Chef Grumpy was a U.S. Navy cook named Dennis. He dreamed up Grumpy’s Restaurant long ago and reportedly still visits the brick-and-mortar location in Orange Park. The place has come a long way over the years, though. It’s even changed hands multiple times. Now under the ownership and leadership of Daniel DeLeon, Grumpy’s enters an exciting new era that includes growth into a franchise opportunity.
Currently located at 834 Kingsley Ave., Grumpy’s Restaurant has been serving Southern-style diner favorites for breakfast and lunch for 20 years. The restaurant prides itself on bringing area residents back to traditional dining roots. It is this commitment to staying true to homestyle cooking, attention-to-detail and sweet Southern hospitality that has neighbors coming back for more. (Grumpy’s Restaurant recently won Best Breakfast and Best American Restaurant in Folio Weekly Magazine’s Best of Clay County readers’ poll.)
Before becoming its owner, DeLeon was a satisfied customer. He dined at the restaurant some two years ago and, recognizing its success and potential, he asked if Grumpy’s was for sale; it was.
“At the time, I was at a crossroads with what I was going to do next in my career,” DeLeon told Folio Weekly. “I was in the process of buying a group of restaurants in the South Florida area. I sold my house in Fleming Island, but during the due-diligence phase of the deal, we decided to not move forward. When I asked if Grumpy’s was for sale, I thought it would be a long shot but, long story short, a couple months later, we bought it.”
As it turned out, the previous owners were selling the restaurant to move to Boston, where their daughter was attending college. This opportunity seemed like the perfect fit for DeLeon and his family, and they remained dedicated to maintaining this neighborhood-driven eatery’s quality, family-friendly atmosphere and affordable prices.
“Our vision of growth has always been centered around staying in the local setting,” DeLeon explained. “We love smaller, Southern communities, because these working-class communities are who we are. Grumpy’s was born out of passion and love for bringing family and friends together over great diner food. Our commitment and mission are to deliver the highest quality dining experience at an affordable price for families everywhere.”
Since DeLeon took the helm, Grumpy’s customer base has grown well outside of the Orange Park area. As the eatery’s reputation expanded beyond Clay County, DeLeon decided it was the right time to expand. In addition, his background in multi-unit franchising and working with large-scale operations and profitability made the move all the more realistic.
First, however, DeLeon gave the initial Grumpy’s location a total renovation and updated the brand. He got rid of all but one of the kitchen’s freezers to emphasize the need for fresh, made-from-scratch and made-to-order cooking. Now, his kitchen staff rarely freezes anything. DeLeon also prioritized upgrading the existing location from top to bottom. Furthermore, he took it upon himself to combine all four of the restaurant’s previous logos into a new master logo, highlighting the “Grumpy” character in a fresh light.
“Everything we’ve done, we’ve set up for branding and replication, whether that was going to be through corporate growth or franchise growth,” DeLeon said. “We wanted to make sure we set everything up correctly to be able to replicate and scale in an efficient manner as we open more locations.”
The menu has also been updated. Grumpy’s now offers fresh hash browns, fresh bacon, hand-cut steaks and American-caught catfish. The popular daily and weekly chalkboard specials are still available, though, including a variety of sandwiches, homemade soups, salads, signature coffee, fresh-squeezed juices, homemade hot chocolate and desserts.
“Since the revamp and our preparation work to expand, things have been great,” DeLeon said. “We launched our franchise program about a month ago, with nine stores in the pipeline for Northeast Florida including in Macclenny, Fernandina, Fernandina Beach, Middleburg and Callahan. We also are very happy to announce we just secured a lease for our second location at The Fountains at St. Johns in the Beach Walk area, and we’re growing like crazy.”
DeLeon added that his philosophy is consistent: Quality growth is the only growth worth cultivating. He will not open a location unless his team finds the perfect partner for that location. If he never finds the perfect partner for a location, he’s OK with that. DeLeon feels that a large part of a franchise’s success relies on the operating partner’s character, work ethic, commitment to excellence, reputation and relationship with the community.
“We love the community and we love Jacksonville,” DeLeon said. “We want the core of everything Grumpy’s to be here. We really feel proud to maintain that old-school ’50s and ’60s diner, and we like that we serve a working person’s portion at a working-class price.”
It’s a winning formula. DeLeon mentioned that he fields regular Facebook inquiries about new openings. He laughed and said he wishes that people could know it’s not that easy. For him, everything has to be right; the vision for the restaurant must remain the same.
“When you come into Grumpy’s, you’ll always see me, my wife and you might even see my kids. That’s who we are,” De Leon said. “We really want to be that place embedded into the community, and we don’t just want to say that like a lot of other franchises and corporate stores. We are committed to doing the best we can all the time, and I think that’s really what separates us.”