Someone took a chance on Darrell Warden-Levine. Now he pays it forward by giving chances to others so they may better their lives. Darrell’s Dog Gone Good Diner offers all the fixins — hope to staff who need second chances, while offering the community delicious breakfast and lunch options from 13 locations in Marion County. 13! They have a new one currently in development in Lady Lake, Lake County, with another planned in Gainesville, Alachua County. Good fortune has blessed Darrell for his good heart.
By: John Sotomayor Photos by: Conan Segrest
Darrell Warden-Levine was working one evening in preparation to get his startup restaurant opened in a few days. He prepared the restaurant at night, after ending his shift at his day job. A woman named Lisa kept asking him if he was hiring. He would reply not until they open. Darrell had no additional startup money to hire even a single employee. This repeated several times until one day, Lisa just started helping him with whatever task he was working on that night to prepare for the opening.
Darrell recognized the drive caused by desperation that could be molded to success, if given a chance.
Lisa became the very first employee of Darrell’s Dog Gone Good Diner. She was in recovery for substance abuse. She rode her bike to work, while dealing with DCF to get her children back. Through sheer determination and putting in the work to recover, Lisa is still employed with Darrell’s Diner 10 years later, has her own home, and got both her kids back.
Hers is the success story that has become common centered around Darrell’s Diner — now the major source of employment in Marion County for those recovering from addiction, like Lisa, to get back on their feet.
Darrell’s Dog Gone Diner started in October 2009, when Darrell, himself a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, asked his employer for financing to start a business of his own. They came to an agreement.
“I was just trying to find myself a job,” said Darrell. “I imagined a small place where I would cook and find a server and make a nice, comfortable living for myself.”
It is always a difficult time to open a restaurant, since most fail within their first year, but 2009 was an exceptionally difficult time, given the recession of 2008. Darrell and his business partner, Larry, persevered, in part due to Larry’s keen sense of business management, but also because of the vast support they received from the recovery community.
Darrell and Larry have helped others, and the recovery community, as well as 12-step ministries and churches, have helped back.
Darrell was born in North Carolina, in a family of four including his parents and sister. His parents divorced when he was 11. He lived with his mother in a motel. His father and sister moved to Florida.
When he was 12, his sister was in North Carolina visiting during the summer. His mother was taking the kids to the mall to meet their father when they were involved in a terrible car accident. Darrell’s sister was killed in the accident. Darrell was removed from his mother’s care following the accident.
“I started down a road of behavioral issues, which included drugs and alcohol,” said Darrell.
Darrell was locked up often at juvenile centers. Eventually, he was sent to a reform camp in Corpus Christi, Texas. He was there for a couple of years.
“It was not a nice place,” said Darrell. “When I got out, that pretty much fueled my anger, my rampage that I was on.”
Darrell was off on his own, moving to Orlando, Florida. His father lived in Bartow, Florida. He wouldn’t live with his father out of resentment for having been sent to the reform camp in Texas. Nothing good happened in Orlando.
“I learned the ways of the streets,” said Darrell. He began working in bars and nightclubs as a bartender. Although the money was good, Darrell got involved in the party life.
“That’s when my drinking and using really accelerated,” said Darrell.
For 12 years or so, Darrell lived homeless, in and out of jail. He was involved in frequent criminal activity just to survive and support his habit.
It turned around for him when he was introduced to a detox. Not by his choice. Darrell was publicly intoxicated, and was given the option to go to detox or jail. Not knowing what detox was, he decided it sounded better than jail.
While he was at the detox, a counselor spoke to him about moving into a halfway house. She told him he could live there and get back on his feet, but that he would have to follow rules, and not drink or drug.
“I was interested in that, because I was interested in getting off the streets,” said Darrell. ‘I didn’t know at the time that I was not interested in drinking, but I was willing to not drink to get out of the situation I was in.”
In January 2000, Darrell was introduced to a halfway house in Ocala called Unity Place. He resided there for nine months, but could not succeed at staying sober on his first try. He started drinking and using drugs in Ocala. He was back in jail quickly after that.
When he was released from jail in 2003, he returned to Unity Place. He has remained sober ever since. He has recently celebrated 15 years of recovery.
After completing his stay at Unity Place, he became an employee there. Eventually, he was promoted to director. Six years later, he opened the diner, with his employer at Unity Place as his business partner.
“Six years after my stay at a halfway house, it was the owner of the halfway house that helped me with underwriting for the business,” said Darrell. “Because of my relationship with the halfway house, church, and the recovery community, my life has turned around; I was helped, so now I am called upon to help others.”
Darrell’s Diner is a second-chance establishment. All of their employees on every level have gone through recovery, and are given the chance to work there because they will most likely not find work anywhere else.
Darrell says many of his staff are referred to him through Unity Place. He also receives many referrals from the 12-step Christian ministries and churches.
“[Helping others] really started because of who I am,” said Darrell. “I am a second-chance employee; had Larry not believed in me, who knows what my story would have become.”
Over the past 10 years, Darrell’s Diner grew to be a huge success. They have 13 restaurants in Marion County. Eight have opened within the past five years.
They have a couple of new prospects. They have one currently opening in Lady Lake, Lake County, adjacent to The Villages. Their next location will most likely be in Gainesville, Alachua County.
“I could not have done this without some really great employees and many loyal, local customers who have consistently stayed with us,” said Darrell. “And also, Larry (his business partner/underwriter) who originally helped me open.”
Darrell admits the diner would not have grown to the scale it has without Larry’s savvy on business management and expansion, and his financial support.
“I knew how to cook food and manage a restaurant, but I did not know how to run and reinvest to grow a business,” said Darrell.
Darrell’s gratitude is evident every day at the diner.
Pay it Forward
Many of the people referred to Darrell from Unity Place, 12-step ministries and churches have felonies and are trying to start their lives over after recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. If a position becomes available, selection is based on satisfactory time and effort on recovery plus experience. Candidates can begin with entry-level experience and learn on the job.
Like Lisa, Darrell’s Diner has many success stories. Ricky is one of them. He had no prior experience but had proven himself serious about his recovery at Unity Place. Darrell gave him a chance five years ago. He was recently promoted to manager after putting in hard work.
“Besides giving people second chances, which we do and hold to high regard, Darrell’s Diner works in conjunction with Unity Place to feed those in need throughout the community,” said Darrell. “Those in need are not only the homeless; they include families who are struggling and the elderly.”
Everyone needs a helping hand at some point in their lives. No one is ever turned away by Darrell’s Diner when asked for help and they can provide it.
Key Ingredients for Diner Growth
What worked for Darrell and Larry may not work for everyone. What they like for their locations are shopping centers with Publix or Winn Dixie anchors. For them, they generate the largest foot traffic ideal for a diner. The best shopping centers anchored by a Publix or Winn Dixie would be located near retirement communities. Shoppers, employees on their way to work or on their lunch break, and retirees make the best diner patrons.
Did You Know?
For the first couple of years, Darrell was the only cook and he hired only one server.
Darrell’s Diner offers simple, great-tasting food, nothing fancy, food that you would cook at home, at low cost, with an open kitchen concept, so patrons can see into the kitchen while dining.
Marketing was done solely by word of mouth. Darrell reached out to the recovery community, and the recovery community responded.
Must-Try Menu Favorite
The Mountain Scrambler is by far their most popular breakfast item. For lunch, try one of their signature, flame-grilled burgers.