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Philadelphia Inquirer: Anniversary for a local legend

Ponzio’s is still dark, but the coffee is on, and so is Joan Browning.

“Doc sits here . . . and this is Coach,” she says, gesturing at two of her counter’s nine seats. It’s 6 a.m. and all of them are empty, but the day’s first regulars are on their way.

“I’m old-school,” adds Browning, who’s 73 and doesn’t look it. “I remember what they eat.”

She started waitressing at Ponzio’s 48 years ago, back when a grilled cheese cost less than a buck, and before “the boys” – brothers Nick, John, and Chris Fifis – were born.

“People like Joanie are the reason Ponzio’s has been here 50 years,” says Nick, 41, who owns the Cherry Hill institution with John and their business partner, John Giambanis. In September they’ll mark the golden anniversary of the “not your typical diner” their uncles Mike, who’s 83, and Nick, now deceased, purchased in 1964.

“We used to be the only game in town,” says Nick, citing the recent explosion of dining options in Cherry Hill and beyond. “The chains,” he adds, “are a challenge.”

There have been other changes. Chris Fifis is now in the insurance business; the brothers’ dad, Demetrios “Jimmy” Fifis, died of lung cancer in 2007; and the diner in Brooklawn where the family business began in 1959 has a different name and ownership.

But Ponzio’s Cherry Hill – 425 seats, 120 employees, 9,000 meals (“covers”) a week – endures, a testament to the family’s hard work and its sure grasp of local tastes.

“It’s like family in here,” says Browning, who’s on duty from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. four days a week. She still works Saturdays, because weekend customers begged her to keep the shift.

Browning knows whether her customers caffeinate, and how they like their eggs or whether they like eggs at all. She knows what newspapers they read, because “they’re my people.”

She launches into a story about how she made sure a disabled customer got a chance “to meet Chris Christie.”

Seems the governor was making a campaign stop at Ponzio’s last fall, and “the lady was dying to meet him, and I can’t believe what I did,” Browning says. “I grabbed his shirt. He was nice about it, and he talked to her. She couldn’t thank me enough.”

All in a day’s work at Ponzio’s, where politicos of both parties go to find votes, regular folks grab a cup of Joe, and generations of families have met for special occasions.

John, a trained chef, describes the menu as “American and a little bit Greek.” It was from the Greek island of Andros that Jim Fifis emigrated in 1966, joining his older brothers Mike and Nick in the restaurant business in South Jersey.

He started as a dishwasher at the Brooklawn Ponzio’s, becoming a partner and, later, a partner in the Cherry Hill diner as well.

“Until the day he died, my dad couldn’t read or write English. We used to read him the bills,” says John, 43. “But his business sense was remarkable.”

He also was civic-minded, a spirit evident in the Jim Fifis Lung Cancer Research Fund his family founded in 2011. The organization has raised $350,000, and all proceeds benefit research at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper University Health Care in Camden.

The fund’s annual dinner is set for 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 23 – at Ponzio’s – and also will serve as a 50th anniversary celebration. Former Cherry Hill Mayor Susan Bass Levin wouldn’t miss it.

“The first time I went to Ponzio’s was in 1970, on a date,” says Bass Levin, president and CEO of the Cooper Foundation. “My kids used to think of Ponzio’s as a home-cooked meal. And when my daughter was in town recently, she said, ‘Let’s go to Ponzio’s.’ ”

Back at Browning’s counter, the regulars start to arrive: Camden High basketball coach John Valore, retired Audubon High librarian Joseph Genovese, and Harvey Schultz, a retired environmental manager.

“I sit down and she brings coffee,” says Schultz, 72, of Cherry Hill. “Then she puts the paper in front of me.”

I may become a regular myself.
856-779-3845 @inqkriordan