For customers of Mills’ Diner in Rochester, the restaurant is a place they can expect to receive a warm greeting, a good plate of food, a healthy dose of laughter and sometimes, a song. “Laughter is so healing,” says Amanda, one of the owners. No matter what a person’s burdens may be walking in the door, she hopes they leave feeling a little lighter. Amanda’s husband Kevin is a professional gospel singer, but it is usually Amanda who spontaneously bursts into song while working at the diner and the staff help carry the tune.
The couple hails from Canada where Amanda owned a restaurant. Then she and Kevin married, sold the business and moved to the U.S. so Kevin could pursue his music career. They spent several years living in an RV, going from gig to gig. Kevin joined the Keepers of the Faith gospel quartet for a few years but is now pursuing his solo career, raising bees and helping Amanda with the restaurant.
Amanda says the best part about owning a business is, “I get to set the tone.” That tone is generally upbeat and fun and is reflected in how they interact with customers and employees alike. When you walk through the door at Mills’ Diner, there is a general good feeling. They want the restaurant to be a place everyone looks forward to coming, including the staff.
In the Mills’ positive management style as Amanda explains, “There are no mistakes, only discoveries.” When a staff member makes a “discovery,” they hold a quick “pow wow” to talk it over and find a solution. “It’s an event. It can be fixed,” Amanda offers. “There is no judgment on the employee and that alleviates a lot of pressure for everyone.” She looks for her staff’s strong suits and places them in positions where they can excel, so everyone can have a successful day.
Amanda is a stickler for quality. She looks for the best ingredients at a good value to keep their prices reasonable. Not only should the food taste good, but it should look good coming out of the kitchen, too. “My expectation is high,” says Amanda. “I have amazing cooks. Samantha’s eggs are perfect, and her hash browns are always crisp. Tom is really good at plating burgers with the buns to the side, so you can see all the toppings.”
The menu continues to evolve as they experiment and learn what their customers like. Amanda tries out new recipes as specials and, if there is a good response, she adds it to the regular menu. Three items their customers love are the chicken fried steak, the omelettes and the handmade biscuits. Scrambles and skillets are also popular.
“We focus on serving with genuine care and concern,” says Kevin. Servant Leadership is a management philosophy Kevin studied while earning his B.A. in Organizational Leadership, focusing on the work of Robert Greenleaf. “If you want to be a great leader, be a good servant,” Kevin says.
According to the Robert L. Greenleaf Servant Leadership Center, “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
To illustrate one way the Mills put their service concept to practice, Amanda recently rearranged the kitchen to make a better workflow. “If I can make it easier for staff to do their work, I’m serving them while leading them to do their best,” she shares.
Soon after they opened, Kevin and Amanda reached out to the community. They have promoted and assisted in fundraising for RFAN, adopted a family for ROOF’s Operation Santa and helped with Swede Hall’s new ramp. They have also opened their kitchen to the Weaver family in the afternoons after the restaurant closes. The Weavers use the commercial kitchen to make baked goods that are sold at the diner and other local businesses. All these are examples of how the Mills carry their philosophy of service into the larger community.
“Since we’ve been here, I really feel privileged to be welcomed by the community. Rochester has something unique for a smaller town. People are very forward thinking and open-minded,“ says Kevin.
Amanda agrees. “I really like Rochester. It’s one of the first times [since leaving Canada] I’ve felt at home.”
Mills’ Diner is more than a restaurant. It is a connection point for the community, where you also get a great plate of food. Warning: you will not leave hungry. “We don’t do small here,” laughs Amanda.
The diner is located in downtown Rochester at 10109 Highway 12 SW. It is open every day from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., serving breakfast and lunch.