It’s past breakfast but not yet lunch on a Tuesday — a usual dead time in the restaurant business — when nearly every seat is spoken for at Walter’s Coffee Shop.
It’s all hands on deck.
Adam Berbrick is on the grill. Grace, his mother, is seating guests. His father, Lenny, is in the back kitchen. And his wife, Dana, is balancing plates from her hand to her elbows as she waits on tables.
Watching over it all at the entrance to this newly remodeled 38-year-old Palmetto Bay diner, a favorite in South Miami-Dade, is the image of the man who started it all. The late Walter Bergamo, dressed in his Navy blues, stares out in a color-illuminated photo.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
For this family, a life in service has a deeper meaning.
Adam Berbrick, 30, a Marine and veteran of three tours in the Middle East, has followed in the footsteps of his grandfather Walter, a cook and enlisted man during World War II who started the first Walter’s Coffee Shop in Long Island in 1956 before opening the restaurant here in 1978.
And now, just as his parents helped his grandfather, he and his wife have tripled the size of the restaurant as they take this family endeavor into the next generation.
“I love the challenge,” Adam says, stopping to talk at a new U-shaped counter in the center of what went from a 1,500-square-foot restaurant to a space of more than 4,000 square feet. “If I’d kept it [the same], what’s the challenge?”
Theirs is a family that clearly enjoys a challenge.
Walter Bergamo had run his Walter’s Coffee Shop on Long Island for 20 years with wife Jo when the couple decided to retire to Florida in 1978. That lasted a whole year. They opened a small spot south of Southwest 170th Street, and business was so brisk that their daughter and son-in-law, Grace and Lenny Berbrick, left New York to help them.
Lenny, a lifelong mechanic, learned everything about his father-in-law’s restaurant business, and Grace, who had been working at the Long Island diner since age 16, knew just how to make it work.
“You wing it. When you’re creative about what you do, you create,” Lenny said.
They soon had to move to the larger space where it stands today, even though they had served only breakfast and lunch. Still, it was a matchbox of a space: Jo, sitting at the first counter seat, greeting guests; Walter at the grill, slinging favorites like his salmon croquettes with grits, corned beef hash, pancakes, patty melts and his takes on club sandwiches.
Lines stretched out the door and around the block on a weekend, with waits of nearly two hours on weekends.
“I like the family atmosphere, the home-cooked meals; everything’s freshly prepared,” said Ernestine Smith Davis, who has been coming to the restaurant for more than 30 years and celebrated her 65th birthday there last month at breakfast with nine other family members. “You can’t go wrong here. Everything is good.”
When Adam’s grandparents died, Lenny and Grace picked up the business. Adam and brother Walter, named for their grandfather, were regular faces, too. While playing high school sports — Walter football and Adam hockey — they often worked at the restaurant before going to school and came after school to help prep for the next day.
“We’re a close family and very passionate about keeping the legacy my grandfather built,” said Walter Berbrick.
Walter took the opposite direction of his grandfather, first starting in the restaurant then, after high school, joining the Navy, where he served for 10 years as a Naval intelligence officer before joining the State Department. Adam enlisted in the Marines the day he turned 18.
“It was my birthday gift to myself,” Adam said.
In Iraq, Adam received hundreds of pounds of food in care packages from friends and neighbors in Palmetto Bay. Flatbed trucks would drop off canned and dried foods that Adam would use to make luxurious meals for his fellow Marines stationed with him and others passing through on missions. He put his diner-taught skills to work.
“It was an ungodly amount of food,” Adam said, laughing.
However, when their parents discussed retiring and selling the restaurant, Adam changed course. He finished his eight-year commitment and returned to South Florida to take over the restaurant. But he had bigger designs for the diner.
They took over the two neighboring spaces and widened the restaurant this spring. Standing in the expanse, his mother, Grace, wondered if they’d done the right thing. They had filled their little restaurant, but could they make a space this big work?
That question answered itself, when, even on a weekday, the expanded restaurant still has lines waiting for breakfast and lunch. The restaurant her son redesigned himself, now sleek with black tables and chairs and white countertops, is constantly full. The staff wears black T-shirts with an American flag on the back, and there’s a wooden flag sculpture on one wall, a nod to the family’s military heritage.
“I was pleasantly shocked,” Grace said. “We needed this young blood. ... It was time to get bigger. We definitely outgrew it.”
They have started opening for dinner and added taps for craft beer, and Adam will be putting several of his own recipes on the menu. Picture everything from corned beef and cabbage egg rolls to sweet potato crisps with maple bacon.
“Anything on my menu, I don’t want any restaurant within five miles to have anything like it,” Adam said. “It’s not just meat and potatoes. Those days are over.”
What hasn’t changed is the pace of this restaurant, where family still matters and their children — now Adam and Dana’s, not he and his brother — learn their legacy from watching and doing. The heart of the restaurant remains service.
“There’s an American flag on the wall for a reason,” Adam said.