Driving up the Turnpike in his green Kenworth, pulling a 48-foot trailer—the proverbial 18 wheels—Jeffrey Youngblood feels he’s home when he sees the cranes towering over the docks at Port Elizabeth. After nearly 11 hours behind the wheel—the legal maximum—he’s ready to refuel his truck and himself.
New Jersey does not lack truck stops, including huge ones run by national chains. At those, Youngblood says, “you’re going to get a barber shop, a laundry, a game room, a TV room, a convenience store and a restaurant.” But at the only place Youngblood wants to go, “you’re not getting any of that.”
When he and his calloused brethren hit North Jersey hankering for a great breakfast, bottomless coffee and a warm welcome, all at a painless price, the where is never in doubt.
“You don’t even have to say the name,” Youngblood says. “Anybody who drives for a living anywhere on the East Coast knows this place.”
He’s talking about the venerable Truck Stop Diner, just off Turnpike Exit 15E in Kearny. Built in the early 1940s in classic railroad-car style by the Kullman Company of Harrison, its 11 vinyl booths face a counter with 20 stools across a narrow, tiled aisle. At 9 am on an autumn Friday, almost every seat and stool is taken. Youngblood, 45, sits in his favorite booth, farthest from the door, with his friend and fellow driver Arion Fordham.
Behind the counter, two cooks in grease-spattered whites flip eggs and griddle hash browns. One is Wilman Coronel, who has manned the stoves since arriving from Ecuador 29 years ago. The other, tall, lean and balding, is the owner, Sam Kolokithas.
Youngblood nods toward the cash register by the front door, where Kolokithas’s wife, Areti, is ringing up takeout orders for about eight broad-shouldered men in jeans, work boots and canvas field jackets over flannel shirts.
“Those are guys who don’t have time to sit down and eat before they reload,” Youngblood observes.
The lone waitress comes over to greet them, pad and pencil in hand. This is Stella. (Never mind the last name. “It’s long and Greek,” she says.) Youngblood orders a frittata with bacon and rye toast. “Make sure there’s tomato and jalapeño in there,” he tells her. “And no onion!” She flaps her pad at him and rolls her eyes, turning to Fordham.
“They’ll make you anything you want,” Youngblood says as she walks away. He casts a fond eye around the pink-and-chrome interior. If the walls could talk, they’d tell you that the diner originally stood at 50th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, across from what was then Madison Square Garden. Known as the Arena, it was moved to its current location in 1948. Kolokithas bought the business in 1989 and renamed it the Truck Stop. Six years ago, the landlord had a new brick exterior built.
“I’ve been coming here since I was four or five,” Youngblood says. He and Fordham, 44, grew up together in Jersey City. Their fathers, truck drivers themselves, used to bring them. Youngblood lives in Florence, South Carolina, now and hauls produce from New Jersey to Texas once a week, CB and satellite radios his only company.
He and Fordham set up breakfasts over the CB whenever Youngblood is in the area. Fordham still lives in Jersey City. Five days a week he climbs into the cab of his Freightliner, picks up 35,000 to 40,000 pounds of orange juice from Tropicana in Jersey City and delivers it to the White Rose grocery distribution center in Avenel.
The Truck Stop wouldn’t have survived all these years just on nostalgia. “Sam makes the best rice pudding in the world and the best corned beef hash,” says David Goodman, a regular who owns a local distribution company and employs a dozen drivers. “Actually, everything he makes is good. He gives truckers what they want: good food, good prices and big portions.”
Kolokithas, 53, hand-chops and sautés his hash with potatoes, onion “and a lot of different spices. I’ve been doing it a long time,” he says.
Rich Maroldi, a trucker from Colonia who has breakfasted at the diner for 30 years, swears by the hash. “It’s excellent,” he says. “And they’ll give it to me burnt, which is how I like it. They also have grits.”
Indeed, in response to requests from Southern drivers some years ago, Kolokithas added fish and grits, lightly breading and frying fresh whiting filets. “It’s caught on with guys here,” he says.
Bleary-eyed drivers frequently order soup at breakfast. “I’ll give them soup any time,” Kolokithas says. “A lot of them have been up all night; they don’t know they’re supposed to be eating breakfast food.” He makes all soups from scratch. Chicken is the most popular, followed by Yankee bean.
The essential liquid, of course, is coffee. Kolokithas buys his from Coffee Associates in Edgewater.
“Truckers like caffeine,” he says. “We don’t go through a lot of decaf.”
Free refills are unlimited at all hours, but with any order from 6 to 8:30 am every day, even the first cup is free. With their hot beverage, many drivers will knock down a few well-buttered blueberry, bran or corn muffins, baked on site each morning.
“Truckers like anything that’s homemade,” Kolokithas says. “They don’t get a lot of it on the road.”
Much of the homey ambience is supplied by Stella, the waitress. “I’ve known Stella for 25 years,” says Goodman. “She’s sweet and kind, never gets mad at anybody and mostly gets every order right. And she’ll kibitz with you. She’s always showing you pictures of her grandchildren. I give her a hug every time I come in.”
Stella, curly haired and vivacious at 59, lives in Jersey City. Asked if she loves her job, she replies with a smirk, “It pays the bills.” But you hear the affection in her voice when she chats with her customers. “My little friend, I didn’t forget you,” she reassures a driver as she sets down a stack of pancakes after a longer-than-usual wait.
The atmosphere stems from the owner’s family. Kolokithas, a farmer’s son, emigrated from Greece in 1978. He and Areti have three children. Mike, 24, the middle child, works at the Truck Stop, cooking, taking orders, doing whatever needs doing. The family lives in Fairview.
While patrons are mostly male, Kolokithas is mindful of the minority. “I keep the ladies’ room locked,” he says. “I don’t want truckers going in there, changing and using the sink to shave. I keep it nice.”
He works 5 am to 6 pm, six days a week, closing on Sunday, when few truckers work. “I’ve had two vacations in 17 years,” he says, sounding not at all cranky.
“Some people are rich and famous,” he observes. “I’m poor and famous. People come here from Louisiana, Texas, all over the place in their trucks. They ask, ‘Are you Sam?’ They’ve never seen me, but they know my name.”
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