Editor’s Note: Mary’s Gourmet Diner was featured on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Tuesday, Dec. 9. The segment featured the controversy over the discount the diner offered until last summer to customers who gave thanks before their meal. See the clip here.
Mary’s Gourmet Diner is home to regulars, tourists, downtown residents, and local university students. Located in the 700 block of Trade Street, the breakfast, brunch, and lunch restaurant oftentimes has a wait upwards of an hour. Inside, the walls are covered in murals and paintings created by local artists, and an original Art-O-Mat vending machine stands next to the hostess stand.
Loyal customers Jodi and Chris Chafin, along with their three-year-old daughter Sloan, are finishing up three large plates of fresh eggs, toast, and a variety of fruit.
“This is one of those places where, even when it is totally crowded, you feel like you’re coming into someone’s house,” Jodi Chafin, 36, said. “You get a home cooked meal, a meal that’s been cooked with love.”
Mary’s Gourmet Diner is owned and operated by Mary Haglund and her three daughters, Shama, Tamis, and Lily, and in its four years downtown has become a community hub. “There is very much a feeling of community on this street and we all try to support each other,” she said.
The diner made national and international headlines for an informal practice of offering discounts to patrons who said grace or offered a prayer before eating.
The practice started informally, about four years ago. “A couple used to come in for dinner, and they would always share a moment of silence before eating,” Haglund said. “We decided to give them a 15% discount for ‘praying in public,’ but it was just for them.”
Soon, more of the wait staff asked if they could also give out the discount to anyone taking a “moment to be grateful,” Haglund said.
“One day, a gospel group came in and posted a picture of their receipt and discount on Facebook. The picture went viral all around the world in 48 hours,” she said.
“It was insane. I got overwhelmed. I turned down 70 interviews from all around the world,” she said. Even Jon Stewart, the political satirist, reached out. “I’m going to be on the Daily Show in the next few weeks.”
After the non-profit organization Freedom from Religion Foundation threatened to sue Haglund and her business, Mary decided to stop the discount.
“My lawyer said there was a possibility that [FFRF] had a case, so I stopped giving the discount,” she said.
In the end, Haglund looked at the ordeal as something that brought more business to her restaurant.
“It was stressful, but you get through it,” she said.
A self-proclaimed hippie, Haglund moved to Winston-Salem from Indiana when she was 25 years old. Her parents were moving to the area and, because of her distaste of the cold, industrial Indiana, she moved with them.
“I love the weather, and the people are very friendly,” she said. “I’m a city girl, and Winston-Salem gives you the best of both worlds. You have everything you need here without the craziness of a big city.”
Before its move to Trade Street in 2010, Mary’s was located outside the reaches of downtown in the 300 block of Brookstown Ave. Since its beginnings in 2000, Mary’s – previously known as Mary’s of Course – has focused on bringing locally-sourced food to Winston-Salem.
“When I opened my restaurant,” Haglund said, “there wasn’t a big trend of farm-to-table dining on the East Coast. I just did it because it’s what made sense to me.”
Now a full member of the downtown community, Haglund loves the people and arts culture that surrounds her on Trade Street.
“I like being on Trade Street because it is in the arts district, and I’ve always been a part of the arts community,” she said.
After holding monthly art shows at the restaurant’s old location, Haglund decided to fill her walls on Trade Street with permanent art. She hired five of her favorite local artists – Jason Blevins, Laura Lashley, Daniel Von Seggen, Zach McConnell, and Liz Simmons – to create lasting installations. The murals and paintings depict everything from jungle scenes to flowers to cartoon-like animals.
“I got to pay them to do something they loved to do, while at the same time making my restaurant beautiful,” she said.
Haglund is in the restaurant four days a week either creating soups, specials, biscuits, and hash browns in the kitchen or talking with customers. When she needs help, she can fall back on her three daughters.
Tamis Brewer, Haglund’s middle child, is a manager at the front of the house and also waits tables.
“I love my job, and I love this restaurant, but it’s hard,” Brewer said, referring to working so closely with so much family for so long. Haglund nods in agreement.
“We don’t regret [deciding to work together],” Brewer said. Most families can’t do this, but Mary is different.”
Haglund who raised her daughters to be “badasses,” feels the same way about working with family.
“I don’t know how many people can work for 14 years together like we have,” Haglund said. “It can be very difficult. Tempers flare, but we figure it out.”
According to Haglund, Mary’s Gourmet Diner joins the ranks of many other woman-owned restaurants downtown, including Camino Bakery, Sweet Potatoes, 6th and Vine, and Mozelle’s Fresh Southern Bistro.
Like many other hopeful downtown residents and business owners, Haglund sees progress all around her.
“There has been constant construction around here since I came in 2010,” she said. “It’s awesome because it’s progress.”
Haglund said her businesses continues to grow every year, and hopes the same is happening with the local businesses around her.
“If you serve real food, it’s going to make people happy,” she said.