BURLINGTON, New Jersey (WPVI) -- "This is like my home away from home," said Karen Parker about the Golden Dawn Diner.
Parker has been serving food and smiles to diner patrons since the 1990s. She says it's the customers that keep her coming back to work every day.
"Yes, they want their eggs and they want their coffee, but they also want somebody to say, 'How are you,' or, 'How is your granddaughter,' and I love to be a part of their world," she said.
But in the year 2020, the hospitality world was turned upside-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With time on her hands, Parker found some painting materials collecting dust in her closet. She brushed them off and got to work.
"It was a sad, sad, depressing time and painting kept me upbeat and positive," said Parker. "It kept me going."
Parker says she painted every day for the months-long span of shutdowns and cut hours.
"I had a closet full of paintings. I didn't know what I was going to do with them," she added. "So, my boss told me that I could put them up at the diner."
Suddenly, the beige walls at the Golden Dawn popped with vibrant colors. Parker painted scenes of exotic beaches and fairytale waterfalls, partially inspired by growing up in Hawaii while her father served in the Air Force. Some enamored customers even purchased paintings on the spot. Parker only charged them for the cost of supplies.
"Now you have people come in, maybe they're not so happy, but if they see a painting, they smile," she said. "For that reason, I think, is why I keep painting."
Parker also has a talent for painting the bigger picture regarding what a diner truly means to its community. She proudly knows loyal customers' favorite foods and takes pride in her relationships with them.
"I remember when Karen first got here. She was an 18-year-old little kid, man," said Nathaniel Parker. "It's crazy, you know, and watching her over the years develop into the person she is right now, you know."
Despite sharing a last name, Karen and Nathaniel Parker are not related. But they share a deep connection thanks to their nearly 30-year relationship built over coffee and eggs.
"You look forward to seeing each other every morning," said Nathaniel about his diner community. "It's like a neighborhood 'Cheers,' as far as I'm concerned, you know."
It's been over a year since Nathaniel and his friends have been able to see Karen's smile behind her mask. Thanks to New Jersey's lifted restrictions, face coverings are no longer required, though they are still recommended for individuals who are not vaccinated.
"We still have a right to wear a mask if we want to," said Nathaniel. "But it provides us, as we should have, choices. And that's what it's all about."
Golden Dawn Diner co-owner Costas Yiatrou is excited to see his business come back to life.
"People are very happy to be able to come back and dine," he said. "It looks like it's going to be a very promising, successful year."
For more information about the Golden Dawn Diner, visit their website.