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Lack of traffic dooms popular diner

Smells of sizzling onions, steaming coffee and fresh-baked pies at Ayres Diner were replaced Tuesday with the more pungent odors of cleaning detergents used to swab the 30-year-old diner one last time. Ayres Diner, a popular 24-hour family-style restaurant at 1102 N Dale Mabry Highway, served its last meal Monday afternoon.

"I guess there comes a time for everything," said owner Mel Ayres. "Nothing lasts forever."

Ayres decided to close the diner after the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) eliminated a northbound left-turn lane into the restaurant's parking lot two years ago. Ayres claimed he lost half his business because of the closing.

DOT officials have told Ayres that it is too dangerous for cars to turn left across three lanes, and that the turning lane was too close to a traffic light with a southbound left-turn lane.

In the last two years, Ayres went from 30 employees to 13. After fruitless correspondence with DOT officials, Ayres decided to end his 42 years in the restaurant business.

Only in the last few days has Ayres realized the impact of his family diner on the community.

"The last three or four days people have been so gracious and kind. I never dreamed we had created such an impression on people, never even considered it," said Ayres.

Ayres, 72, opened his first diner in 1958, near the University of Tampa. At one time he had four diners in Tampa.

Although the restaurant business has been his life, Ayres looked more resigned than worried or upset Tuesday as he sat alone at a wooden booth inside the empty diner.

"I haven't faced it yet. This is the first day we're closed. I'll probably play a little golf at Palma Ceia," he said.

Customers, many of them regulars, have asked to take menus home as mementos. Some have asked for Ayres' autograph.

One special customer will miss the place. Harvey, the manager's dog, who often stayed in the office while she worked, will miss the big, juicy cheeseburgers with mayonnaise he was often served.

"All the cooks wanted to quit because they had to make him cheeseburgers," said employee Renee Rodriguez.

Most employees, some of whom have worked at the diner for many years, are sad. Many said they planned to look for other restaurant jobs.

"It's sad, definitely," said Rodriguez, 25, who has worked at the diner since she was 14. "We're just one big, happy family."

The hustle-bustle, the noise and chatter are gone. The shiny chrome counters and old-fashioned counter stools are empty, and the jukebox is silent.

"It's like a second home," said manager Donna Cremeans, an employee of 22 years. "At some point, I'm going to cry."

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