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Counter Culture

Diners that combine comfort food with updated touches are serving up big sales.

Chances are, there's one in your past. You met your buddies there for Cokes and fries when you were a teenager or spent restless nights there nursing a bottomless cup of coffee. The food was simple, the Formica counter gleamed, and your waitress was always a character. A good diner is more than a restaurant: It's a haven for the tired and hungry.

Though they bring back memories, diners aren't purely nostalgic. In formats grand and small, typical and unique, old-fashioned and contemporary, diners are back, and they couldn't be more au courant.

This isn't the diner's first big comeback. The mid-'80s saw a rash of slick, gimmicky restaurants looking to cash in on the diner's appeal. Though the singing, poodle-skirted waitresses drew a crowd, novelty alone couldn't sustain the trend. Apparently, Americans loved the good old days but not the bland, greasy cooking--especially at theme restaurant prices. As the entertainment value of these places diminished, so did their customer base.

This time, it's different. Diners are returning to their real roots and fulfilling a need that's more contemporary than ever: America's hunger for tasty homestyle cooking. "People are tired of eating fast food or paying $10 for a sandwich at a typical casual-dining restaurant," says Ken Higginbotham, founder of 5 & Diner, a Mesa, Arizona-based franchise. Today's diners stick to the kind of homestyle, made-from-scratch favorites you love to eat again and again.

Though the hype has vanished, the charm has not. "Diners bring high-touch elements to a high-tech world," explains Bob Giaimo, founder of the Rockville, Maryland-based Silver Diner chain. "When we put a diner up, we have lines out the door without any advertising. People recognize [what we're doing] by our look."

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This article was originally published in the November 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Counter Culture.

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