Monday, August 17, 2015

A Look Back At Al Doumar

It's been a little over a year since May 14, 2014: a day that stands out as a sad day in Norfolk's history. It was the day that Al Doumar, the figurehead of Doumar's on Monticello in Norfolk, passed away from bladder cancer. And it's been almost a year since his beloved wife, Gracie, joined him.

Of running the business his father was known for, working there since the 1930's when his grandfather moved it from Ocean View, first as a manager and then as a cone maker extraordinaire, Thaddeus Doumar said it definitely has been different.

"A lot of people came just to see Dad making cones," Thaddeus said. He made it his job to continue using the world's oldest ice cream cone machine, giving the restaurant it's steady supply of crispy cones.

"We used to joke that Dad was the most photographed man in Virginia that wasn't a politician," Thaddeus said. "He was just an everyday guy that did what he did, everyday. He was a celebrity type of guy from old Norfolk, and he was a gracious old gentleman."

To someday work in his place, Mr. Doumar trained Thaddeus, grandson Hunter, and Randy Windley to make cones on that iconic maker.

The day-to-day business has managed to hold up, according to Thaddeus, but for some people, Al was the business itself. After his father passed, Thaddeus said there was some business that dropped off. This year, the diner has seen an uptick in tourists coming in.

Thaddeus said Doumar's business is at its best when the temperature is 40-90 degrees: any cooler or hotter, people don't want to leave their houses for ice cream. Because Doumar's is known primarily as a take out/carside diner, they can plot out an average of what business will be like, based on the forecast.

Despite June being so unseasonably hot, Thaddeus said business had an unexpected boost during Memorial Day weekend, thanks in part to a rebroadcast of the episode of "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," hosted by Guy Fieri on the Food Network.

However, it wasn't a straight rerun of the original episode that aired in the summer of 2008. This was a recap of Guy's six favorite places to eat and featured a memoriam to Al Doumar at the end of the episode.

After that episode, tourist business picked up, making up for the locals that hadn't been coming in.

"Dad was media savvy, so he would have been excited to see all the publicity [surrounding his passing]," Thaddeus said. "He would have been very humbled by the publicity...Dad treated everyone the same, regardless of their status, and people appreciated it."

But because of Al, Doumar's appeals to everyone across the board. Al used to sell cones on his birthday, priced to sell for the cost of his age, every March.

Of that tradition, Thaddeus said, "I think we'll continue it for a few years, because people still remember him. Will we continue it for years? Who knows. Small business is a challenge every day, but we can try new things every day."

Al and Gracie were each briefly married prior to marrying each other. Of his mother, Thaddeus said his father's passing was a new tragedy for her to deal with everyday when she woke up.

Thaddeus said he asked his father once what was the smartest thing he ever did in life, expecting a different kind of answer than the one he got.

"He said the smartest thing he ever did was to marry my mom," Thaddeus said. "They were a great team. They were one of those couples that were so well suited for each other."

Thaddeus said his father kept a grammar school picture from the 1930's and an article in his bedroom. The picture was from James Monroe School, and the article was about the school's patrol guard program. He once asked his father why he kept that picture.

"He said one third of those guys died in World War II. I think he felt he was saved for something else. His life had to matter. He was in the service, but it wasn't something he talked about," Thaddeus said.

But the best way Thaddeus could describe his father was like this: "For a little man, he had a great presence. He was 92 years old. I'm grateful to have had him as long as I did...He was the greatest man I'll ever know."