Almost every day at 4:30 a.m., John Waterman sends a text message to Margaret Ryone.
In the beginning, he did it to make sure the former waitress turned manager at Buford's Family Restaurant was awake.
Now he does it just because.
“You have to dedicate your whole lifestyle to the diner,” said Waterman, who took over Buford's last spring. “The diner has to come first, and the people who are in it.”
Owner turned cook
These days the people who are in it are the same ones who have always been there; they're just in different roles. Ryone, who worked as a waitress for 17 years, is the manager. Annie McGowan, who owned the diner from 1998 until 2008, is the cook.
She said she loves it.
“I don’t have to worry about anything but cooking. It’s fabulous,” she said. “No stress. If something breaks, I don’t have to worry about it.”
The diner's been in Groton for more than 50 years and has changed hands during that time. But when Waterman bought it, he left it as it was. He wanted the staff to stay, and so they have, with the exception of one.
“We changed the sign. That’s the only thing that’s different,” he said.
He owns a Pepperidge Farm bread franchise from the New London bridge to the Rhode Island line, and delivers bread to 16 grocery stores and restaurants, including Buford's. He met the store's former owner, Karen Dole, delivering bread along his route.
When he learned that Dole planned to leave to open The Bridge Market, and that Buford’s might close, he talked to his wife and they bought it.
Waitress turned manager
Ryone recalls that time. “I was heartbroken thinking that I’d have to be leaving all these people that I’d been with for 17 years," she said. "Then John, my hero, came in.”
McGowan said it’s hard to work somewhere else after you’ve worked at Buford's. She sold the restaurant to Dole, then went to work for Pfizer as a cook. She was laid off. After that, she worked as a chef at Academy Point before returning to Buford's.
“It doesn’t feel any different,” McGowan said. “It’s like I stepped back in time.”
In the future, Waterman said he’d like to become even more entrenched in the community. The restaurant sponsors a Groton Little League team, takes part in a fundraiser for Special Olympics and donates gift certificates to events like Groton City Day.
“We’re getting more customers,” Waterman said. “And when you see new faces, that brings new opportunities.