Learning to Rise N Shine
By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Alice G. Patterson
Danielle Mercuri didn’t know what to do or where to turn. She’d been on unemployment for a while. Utilities were being shut off. And she had three daughters to raise.
Then, the phone rang. The timing was impeccable.
“This was probably five minutes prior to me being literally on my knees crying because I was so upset,” she recalled.
Danielle’s stepfather was on the line. His friend, Peter Hennessey, owned The Rise N Shine Diner, a small eatery tucked away behind Valvoline Instant Oil Change on Thompson Road near Carrier Circle in Syracuse. Danielle had never heard of the restaurant, let alone met Pete before. Her stepfather suggested she work as a server at the diner.
She had experience serving — almost a decade’s worth — but wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of revisiting the experience. But she needed a job, and Pete was hiring.
“And that’s how I found this place,” she said, gesturing to the modest, bustling, colorful restaurant.
Danielle, now the owner of The Rise N Shine Diner, grew the business from an average trucker’s diner to a Syracuse staple, a destination visited by people from around the world.
“We’re going on our sixth year,” she said. “It feels like yesterday. It’s amazing.”
Learning the diner basics
When Danielle began serving at Rise N Shine, it was means to survival, to keep the lights on at home.
Before long, it became more than that. Danielle brought a background in fashion design with her to the new job, adding a flair of creativity. Eventually, she took on some managerial responsibilities. Pete even began teaching her to cook.
While she’d had experience cooking creative dishes at home — “weird stuff,” she recalled with a laugh — it wasn’t until she was in the diner that she expanded her knowledge.
“Pete showed me those skills you just don’t get to learn in your own home kitchen, [the skills you] you learn on a cook line,” she explained.
It was under unfortunate circumstances that Pete enlisted her help on the line. While at the time, he simply thought he was sick, Pete eventually learned he was suffering from leukemia. Some days, he couldn’t even stand.
Soon, it became clear someone else would have to take the reins at Rise N Shine.
In November 2012, Danielle went to see Pete in the hospital. She expected it to be a simple visit, to check on the man who’d become like an uncle to her.
But, when she arrived, she was met with a roomful of lawyers and an accountant. She soon learned Pete planned to sign the restaurant to her.
“Are you sure?” she asked him. “Are you serious? Is this what you really want to do?”
Pete wasn’t much of an emotional man, Danielle recalled. His response was simple and straightforward.
“Yes,” he said. “This is what you’re going to do.”
For those first few months, Danielle talked to Pete on the phone almost every night about her new business. They assumed he’d recover and continue to coach her through the process from Florida, but that wasn’t the case. Pete passed away in February 2013.
So, there Danielle was, a new business owner with no business background. She had learned a lot from Pete in her time at Rise N Shine, but wasn’t familiar with the behind-the-scenes inner workings of the business.
“Where do you buy things? Where do you go? Who are the vendors? I know nothing,” she remembered thinking at the time.
However, Danielle had two important skills on her side: perseverance and customer service.
“I know how to treat customers. I know what they want. That’s actually my thing,” she said, adding she also thrived off the creative aspect of designing a menu and making food.
During that same time, Danielle faced challenges in her personal life, as well. Being a business owner helped instill in her the confidence to make other changes in her life.
“I felt that these moves — even though they were bad in a sense, with a man dying — these moves were changes in my life that helped me grow,” she said. “And I wanted to make sure I did it the right way.”
The first couple of years were tough, Danielle admitted. She and her daughters were essentially homeless for a time, living in a hotel for a summer.
Her family helped her a great deal, offering financial backing and advice. They’re still by her side today.
Despite the challenges she faced, there was no going back, Danielle remembered thinking.
“I kept saying, ‘I’m not giving up. I’m not giving up. I can’t let this go,’” she said, admitting it was tough to build the business. “It’s crazy. From what I did then to what I do now, I would have never imagined it.”
Sprucing up the menu
From day one of business ownership, Danielle knew she’d need to change the menu to be successful. The changes ended up being extensive.
“At first, it was, ‘Tweak a burger, tweak a sandwich.’ And then, ‘Screw it, let’s do the whole thing,’” she remembered with a laugh.
The one item she didn’t alter at all is the home fries recipe, Danielle said proudly. Down to the type of potato, seasonings and cooking method, Pete’s staple breakfast food has remained the same.
Change isn’t always easy — for anyone involved. In an industry often dependent on regulars, that can present a challenge.
Danielle began experimenting by adding influences from Spanish and Mexican foods, as well as following culinary trends from places like New York City or New Jersey.
Many of the diner’s regulars, older men who’d been friends with Pete, told her, “This is silly. You’re crazy.”
But that didn’t stop Danielle. Now, the menu boasts pages and pages of unique and innovative breakfast and lunch offerings, ranging from immense omelets to the pancake factory to the green leafy stuff, to borrow wording from the menu itself. For a complete list, visit risenshinediner.com/menu.
“I hate to even say sometimes we’re a diner, just because we bring so many different things here,” Danielle said.
Growing the Rise N Shine family
Along with expanding the menu, Danielle also slowly expanded her team. She’s grown the employee base from about five people when she inherited the business to 17 people currently.
That includes two of her three daughters, both of whom want to follow their mother’s culinary footsteps, as well as her sister. Danielle’s sister was hired as a dishwasher shortly before Pete’s passing, and now works as Rise N Shine’s head baker, responsible for breads, cookies and cinnamon rolls. People come from all over just for the rolls, Danielle said.
Danielle admitted it can be a love-hate relationship at times, and wouldn’t recommend working with family to everyone, but it works well for them, she said with a smile. She’s also brought on staff she’d met at other local diners over the years, including current manager Kellie Vadekas, who previously owned The No Name Diner.
“They come with their own entourage,” Danielle explained. “They have their own regulars who they have from back in the day.”
Along with regulars from other diners, Danielle has worked to attract many new Rise N Shine regulars since taking over in 2012.
It was initially a difficult task, since the restaurant was tucked away with little signage. At the beginning, on days when their small sandwich board blew down, the restaurant would see few customers.
Now, thanks to the location near the New York State Thruway and the power of social media, there’s hardly a need for any physical signage. On most weekend mornings, customers are willing to wait upwards of an hour for a seat at Rise N Shine.
“We get people from all over the world,” Danielle said. “It’s amazing.”
Many photos people come across on social media — on Yelp, Google and TripAdvisor, just to make a few — are taken by customers, Danielle said. Because of people’s propensity to snap before they eat, she’s always keeping that next photo in mind when making and plating the food.
“That’s another huge thing of mine: presentation,” she said. “Quality [is] first and foremost, but presentation is key.”
The future of The Rise N Shine Diner
Now in her sixth year as owner, Danielle admits she’s thought about opening another location of The Rise N Shine Diner, possibly in the Central New York area or even out of state. There’s demand for it, she said.
But, regardless of what happens, the original location will forever be her baby.
“I feel like that right moment will come, just like coming to here,” she said, thinking back to that original life-changing phone call. “So, I’m waiting for that moment, that a-ha moment.” SWM