It started out as a humble imitator of the swanky dining car, but now its menus and marvels have made it into a roadside Ritz
By Gardner B. Soule
THE eating places with the most elaborate menus in the wold, in the fastest service and the most customers are not the restaurants of Paris but instead are mass-produced in U.S. plants.
The roadside diner- the long, narrow, silver-colored affair that looks like a railroad dining car – has become the fanciest, speediest and busiest of eating establishments.
The story begins more than 60 years ago, in 1892, the year Charles Duryea successfully operated the first gasoline driven horseless carriage in America. In that year a man named Charles Palmer started using horse-drawn wagons to carry hot frankfurters and beans to workmen in Worcester, Mass., factories.
What grew out of Duryea’s invention is well known. What came from Palmer’s idea is not. But as Americans took to the highways, the diner took out after the cars, and by 1953 the diner was as different from Palmer’s dog-and-bean wagon as a 1953 Cadillac is from Duryea’s gasoline buggy:
- Instead of Palmer’s menu of two choices, the 1953 diner has a menu that may run to six pages and include lobster Cantonese, crepes Suzette and champagne.
- Instead of taking the time that the Greasy Spoon used to require to prepare a meal, the 1953 diner is engineered to get the average customer in, fed and out in 20 minutes.
- Instead of peddling food to workmen only, the 1953 diner caters to men, women and children, even to clubs. It caters to truck drivers still (although the tip-off to a diner’s popularity is no longer rows of Freuhaufs but a parking lot full of Fords, Buicks – and up). It caters, above all, to families.
- Instead of functioning at night only (this got Charles Palmer suspected as the operator of a sinister trade), the modern diner is open 24 hours a day. “We don’t have a key,” says Martin Rich, who owns a diner near Port Chester, N.Y., on U.S. 1 ” I forgot where I put it.”
- Instead of being an establishment of doubtful hygiene, the 1953 diner has steel counters, leather or plastic seat covers, terrazzo floors, chrome decorations and a plastic ceiling. All- including the ceiling- can be wiped clean instantly with a damp cloth.
- Instead of seating six or eight persons at a counter only, as Palmer’s wagons did, the modern diner has tables, booths and counters, and seats as many as 137.
- Instead of being carpenter built wooden wagons, today’s diners are stainless steel, chromium plated, air conditioned, fully insulated, fluorescent lighted, deluxe eating establishments with as many accessories as a 1953 automobile. They are constructed on assembly lines with power tools, largely from prefabricated parts.
The man who changed the wooden lunch wagon into a streamlined steel car was a New Yorker named Jerry O’Mahony. He ran a diner a 7th Ave and 34th Street in 1913. Did well, too. Made $1,380 that year. But customers asked where he got his wooden diner. So he had his carpenter build some, and sold them for $300 each ($6461 in 2009). Then he kept on building diners.
Today Jerry O’Mahony, Inc. of Elizabeth, N.J. is the biggest of about a dozen companies making diners. Others include Silk City Diner, Inc., and Paramount Diner Corp. at Paterson, N.J. and Kullman Dining Car Co. at Harrison N.J. New Jersey is the state that makes the diner.
Prices Have Gone Up
O’Mahony’s prices have gone up. “Our diners,” the company boasts, “are the most expensive you can buy.” Selling prices start at $36,000 (34 seats) and go up to $110,000 (those 137 seaters)
An O’Mahony diner is delivered to its owner complete: with sinks, stoves, refrigerators, walk in freezers (a diner buys a side of beef at once), plumbing, air conditioning, heating, automatic dish washers, steam tables, phone booths, counters, stools, pots, pans, waitresses uniforms, china, napkins, silverware, toothpicks, rest rooms, fudge pumps, food warmers, and juke box outlets offering a choice of up to 100 records.
O’Mahony will include television sets if you insist, but doesn’t like to. TV keeps the customers staying longer than that 20 minutes without increasing the money they spend.
Some O’Mahony diners come with a private mahogany office for the owner, complete with built in shower.
The prospective owner usually pays only about one-fourth down. The O’Mahony company has an interest, therefore, in the owner’s success and checks the proposed location before it sells every diner. Traffic past the proposed site is surveyed.
The prospective owner is combed over pretty hard, too. O’Mahony won’t sell to an absentee owner because, with an absentee, more food goes out the back door than out the front.
If a location fails to pay off, a 1953 diner can be jacked up, put on wheels and hauled to a more promising spot. But so thorough are these surveys that not one O’Mahony diner has had to be moved in the past 10 years. Instead, bigger diners are continually replacing those whose business has outgrown them.
$1,250 a Week
An owner’s possibilities for profit are better than Jerry O’Mahony’s were in 1913. Today the net may run $1,250 a week. “Financial security,” says an O’Mahony circular, “is yours for the asking.”
Martin Rick, who runs the Old Post Grill diner on U.S. 1, has gone out after that financial security with an O’Mahony diner. His menu is almost as long as the highway. He sells coffee only and also five-course dinners. He specializes in Hungarian goulash and seafoods. He offers your choice of salads, cold cuts, sodas, sundaes and a dozen categories of desserts. You can wash all this down wish champagne ($6 a bottle) or with anything else. Here Rich’s is different from the typical diner, which does not serve liquor.
The kitchen at Rich’s is a masterpiece of compactness. All cooking apparatus is condensed into a space the size of a truck body – friers, baking ovens, short order grills, heavy duty ranges, sinks, storage. The only food prepared in front of the customer is ice cream dishes.
None of Rich’s waitresses has to walk more than 34 feet in any direction to fill an order. This allows Rich to maintain that 20-minute schedule, an important factor with the average check around 60 cents. His 92 seat diner has fed 2500 people in one day
Diners Heading West
Observing the success of Rich and others, the O’Mahony company is expanding. It has just opened a plant in St. Louis, the first one to mass produce diners west of New Jersey. Transportation costs from the factory to a site are high, and most of the 6,000 U.S. diners are in the East, near the New Jersey factories. But soon, the company hopes, O’Mahony steamlined diners will dot highways everywhere.
In the West, diners will have to compete with deluxe drive ins which are rare in the East. No problem, a diner executive said. Drive-ins have limited menus, he insisted, and predicted that diners would beat them.
Customers Come in Limousines
What the company doesn’t add, enterprising owners will. One owner in the East put Baked Alaska on his menu and became a success. Dozens of owners have added tablecloths and freshly cut flowers to their tables. This has worked so well at one diner – in Aberdeen, MD – that three regular customers arrive daily in chauffeur-driven limousines.
But a diner out on New Jersey 29 has added the crowning touch – a headwaiter, complete with tuxedo, who seats the guests. Yet if you approach this headwaiter in shirtsleeves, in overalls or behind a day’s growth of beard, he will seat you promptly and won’t even raise an aristocratic eyebrow.