MARLETTE TWP. — Since Hilltop Coney Diner opened last year inside a renovated former Burger King restaurant, the eatery has become known for a heaping corned-beef sandwich, topped — lately — with generosity.
Free food and beverages for children — first offered two days a week but expanded to Monday through Thursday, from 3 to 9 p.m. — is the diner’s gift to the community.
“A lot of moms and dads don’t have enough money to spend for their kids,” said Dino Lekocevic, 58, a prep cook at the diner at 3783 S. VanDyke Road (M-53) in Sanilac County’s Marlette Township.
“That’s why we offered this discount — to get people to come here more often and to make people happy.”
If an adult spends $9.95 on food, a child receives a free meal off the kids’ menu — comprising 10 entrees — and a free beverage. Children 12 and under receive the deal.
“By the time you order a sandwich and French fries, you reach ($9.95),” said Kathy Hoig, 54, manager at the diner.
“I think the (deal for children) is a really nice thing,” said Jerry Bartholomew, 45, visiting the diner Thursday with his wife, Jennifer, 43, and their daughter Mary Claire Bartholomew, celebrating her eighth birthday.
“It gives families a better opportunity to get out and do something together,” Bartholomew said. “It’s a pretty healthy environment here. There aren’t many (dining) choices in Marlette, and it’s clean here, and a nice family environment.”
Perched on one of the diner’s 12 stools at the counter, Brian Goff, 59, of Marlette, figures all restaurants should follow suit.
“The need is basically all over,” said Goff, a truck driver. “The way this economy is here in the United States, there are kids that need to be fed. If we don’t feed ’em, what’s going to happen? In my opinion, this (discount) should be all over the place.”
Goff said that in his travels driving a semitrailer, he’ll find an occasional “big truck stop” offering free food for children when an adult buys a meal, but typically only one day a week.
The need for free food for families — around Marlette — has risen greatly in the past 10 years, said Gina Titus, of Heaven Sent Community Ministries food pantry, 3065 Main St.
Titus told The Advertiser in September that the need for free food is “so much worse” now in Sanilac County, population 41,823, than when the pantry opened 10 years ago — despite media reports that Michigan’s unemployment rate has dropped in the past few years.
Rebecca Detkowski, 22, a waitress at the diner, said the special deal on children’s food “has picked up our weekday business for sure.”
Mark Dedvukaj, owner of the diner, has impressed customer Jim Westover, 70, of Sanilac County’s Marlette Township.
“He’s got a big heart,” Westover said. “They give discounts for deer hunters and all kinds of (promotions) here. I’ve been coming here every day about three times a day ever since they opened up, and I’ve never had a bad meal.”
Eric Evans, 33, a truck driver from Clinton County stopping to eat at the diner while hauling milk from Bad Axe to Pennsylvania, praised the restaurant for its “awesome Reuben with fresh corned beef that actually tears apart.”
“We have a full-time prep-cook chef (Lekocevic) in the back so he’s always preparing the meat daily,” said Rock Berisha, 49, of Macomb County’s Washington Township, head cook at the diner. “He’s here from open until closing every day.
“We get this meat from Wigley’s (meat wholesale business) in Detroit, one of the best corned-beef providers out there. We boil it here for about four and one half hours, let it cool down, chill it and then we slice it. Then we steam it on the grill.”
Hannah Musiel, 17, waitress at the diner, said Berisha and Lekocevic “have been cooking for a while and they like making the food look really good — presentable.”
The diner south of Marlette also operates a drive-thru there, though it has added handmade cedar tables — produced by local craftsmen — inside the eatery in recent weeks. The restaurant’s regular hours are from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Hoig, diner manager, said she has bought customers’ meals “many times” inside the business.
“We get a lot of pay-it-forwards here, too,” Hoig added. “About a month ago on a Sunday morning, I had a family wanting to pick up another family’s bill. They didn’t know them, but they just wanted to pay their bill.
“So they paid that other family’s bill, and when I told the other family their bill was taken care of, they in turn wanted to buy somebody else’s meal. When I told the next family their bill had been paid, the (chain) went through eight different families. It was the coolest thing.
“We get that a lot here, where somebody will pick up somebody else’s bill.”
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org