Counter Culture

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.

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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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