From the November 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

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."

Restaurant Roots

If diners are newly hot, they're surely the oldest new restaurant concept around. According to Richard J.S. Gutman, author of American Diner Then and Now (HarperPerennial), diners began in the 1870s as "night lunch" wagons--horse-drawn carts that served meals to factory workers on the night shift, when regular eateries were closed. Over the decades, these portable dining carts expanded to include indoor seating, began opening for multiple meals (sometimes around the clock), put down roots in fixed locations, and developed the streamlined, stainless-steel-and-tile look people still associate with diners today.

For purists, diners still fit standard criteria. A true diner is prefabricated, manufactured by a specialized diner maker, says Randy Garbin, publisher of Worcester, Massachusetts-based Roadside, a magazine about diners. "The space should be long and narrow, from which you can slice off little bits of intimacy," he adds. "It's that sense of public intimacy that gives diners their distinctive feeling. And there should always, always be a counter."

Whats Cooking Now

Of course, plenty of new diner-style restaurants aren't prefabs. The cost of buying a new prefabricated diner can easily exceed $1 million. And, though price tags on vintage diners can be considerably cheaper (perhaps less than $50,000), renovation costs can run into the hundreds of thousands. Today, many new diners occupy conventional restaurant space.

Ideas about service and food are also broadening. It's traditional for diners to stay open long hours, but Garbin reports that some operations open strictly for breakfast and lunch. "It's hard to make more than a paycheck if you aren't open for dinner," Garbin says, "but some places stick to a breakfast-and-lunch schedule."

Diners still serve simple, honest cooking, but greasy fare is out. Today's blue-plate favorites are generally improvements on familiar foods. "People definitely don't want hot turkey sandwiches made with gloppy gravy and white bread," says Giaimo. "Our food is homestyle but with a contemporary flavor. For instance, we roast our turkey fresh all day and serve our sandwiches on herbed bread."

From the humblest dishes can come real cuisine--the kind restaurateur Sheldon Fireman put on the menu at his upscale Brooklyn Diner USA in New York City. Don't look for a $3 cheeseburger at Fireman's diner; dinner entrees hover in the $15 range, and a cheeseburger lunch will set you back $9.75. But then, as Fireman puts it, "the pot roast is your grandmother's pot roast. It's something you'd wake up in the middle of the night wanting."

Like all nostalgia, it's a question of making the past more palatable. Done well, updated old-fashioned cooking can be as persuasive as a fond memory. Fireman expects his diner to gross $3.7 million this year, and he's cooking up plans to expand nationwide.

Dining To Meet You

Another hallmark of diner dining is durability. A good diner is a place customers can stomach on a regular basis. "Our goal was to build a restaurant where people could eat week after week and never tire of it," says Giaimo. Whether for the cooking, the informal atmosphere, the accommodating hours or the conviviality of counter dining, folks tend to come back to diners again and again, more than other types of restaurants.

According to Linda D'Auria, owner of the 40-year-old Winter Park Diner in Winter Park, Florida, the relationship between a diner and its patrons is anything but casual. "People feel like they're at home here," D'Auria explains. "Familiarity is a big deal. The workers have all been here for a long time, and everybody's really friendly."

The formula for creating a regular hangout includes staying on top of your market, changing with consumer tastes and maintaining high service standards. But it also involves an indefinable quality that Providence, Rhode Island, diner historian and restorer Daniel Zilka calls "personality."

"Every city you go to is starting to look the same," Zilka explains. "There's the Wal-Mart, the K mart, the McDonald's and the Burger King. But each diner has its own personality. A diner can really belong to its neighborhood."

Moreover, diner culture is like no other. "You can sit next to someone at a diner and strike up a conversation," Zilka notes. "You probably wouldn't feel comfortable doing that in a booth at Burger King."

Come And Get It

Anyone with sufficient capital can own a diner. It takes a special person, however, to give a diner life. In addition to vision, you need a strong grasp of restaurant economics. Operating hours are long, and menus are varied. "Diners are highly dependent on turnover," Garbin points out. "Also, alcohol sales are usually not successful, so you're limited to the relatively low profit margins of serving food."

Busy, visible locations--such as shopping malls--are desirable but expensive. Add typical building costs, which range from $150,000 to more than $1 million, and even a modest diner is a major undertaking.

Higginbotham at 5 & Diner claims that franchising can eliminate some of the risks, especially for newcomers to food service. "In this business, you're dealing with a lot of variables," he says. "Doing research, advertising, tracking sales--these things can get neglected," with negative effects on the bottom line. Independents and franchisees alike need solid strategies for dealing with both the mundane details and larger issues associated with diner ownership.

Perhaps the best starting point for any aspiring diner owner is to visit various new and vintage diners. Although owning a diner is decidedly different from patronizing one, there's no better way to understand the diner's magic than to experience it firsthand--counter by counter, pie by pie, one bottomless cup at a time.

Want To Know More?

 

  • Roadside magazine is a quarterly publication for diner enthusiasts and owners. Annual subscriptions are $14. Also inquire about Roadside's list of diners for sale. For information, call (508) 791-1838, or write to P.O. Box 652, Westside Stn., Worcester, MA 01602.

 

  • The American Diner Museum, opening in late 1997, publishes a nationwide directory of roughly 2,000 diners and sponsors an annual diner convention. For information, write to 110 Benevolent St., Providence, RI 02906, or call (401) 331-8575, ext. 102.

 

  • The National Restaurant Association supports restaurateurs nationwide and publishes a monthly magazine, Restaurants USA. Phone (800) 424-5156, or write to the National Restaurant Association at 1200 17th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20036-3097.

Contact Sources

5 & Diner, 1140 E. Greenway, #1, Mesa, AZ 85203, (602) 962-7104;

Brooklyn Diner USA, 212 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019, (212) 581-8900;

Silver Diner Inc., 11806 Rockville Pike, Rockville, MD 20852, (301) 770-0333;

Winter Park Diner, 1700 W. Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park, FL 32789, (407) 644-2343.