The Roadside Diners Are Rolling

From September 1953’s CORONET


by George H. Waltz Jr.

This strictly American phenomenon has come a long ways since its inception in 1882.

TWO YEARS AGO, Danny Long was a promising young catcher in the Montreal Royals when a play at home plate resulted in a bad shoulder injury. It was a grim day for Danny when the doctors gave him the bad news that his baseball days were probably over.

While nursing his physical ills and wondering how he was going to earn a living, he met the owner of a diner in Trenton, New Jersey.

Lacking anything better to do, he began helping the counter whenever he could. That did it. A quick trip back to his home town of Montgomery, Alabama, proved two things. Montgomery did not have a modern diner, and Montgomery businessman was willing to lend Danny a hand financially.

Back North, Danny ordered a diner. While it was taking shape in a New Jersey factory- a process that usually takes about four months- he went about getting experience by taking odd jobs in various diners in the vicinity. When off duty, he hung around the factory and watched a diner grow from plans on a drawing board to completion.

“Danny’s Diner” now packs them in at the corner of Bainbridge and Madison Avenues in downtown Montgomery. Among other things, it has the distinction of being the first modern restaurant-type diner to begin operations in Alabama.

Currently, the gleaming modern version of the old time “dog-wagon” – air-conditioned, well lighted, spotlessly clean, and with a menu as long as your arm- has taken a place of honor in the community. Businessmen go there for lunch. The church choir gathers there after rehersals. Local organizations hold their meetings there. Teenagers use it as a club. The diner is the hottest thing in the eatery business. So much so, in fact, that many a restaurant has put up a false diner-front in the hope of getting in on the act.

And a lucrative act it is. According to those who should know, hungry patrons this year will pour about $600,000,000 (4.7 Billion in 2009 dollars) into the tills of the nearly 6,000 diners operating in the nation. As a result, more than one operator will ring up better than $500,000 in 1953 ($4 million in 2009 dollars) , and be able to pocket a neat profit of $1000 a week for himself after deducting expenses and taxes.

The tax problem itself is eased by the fact that the modern diner is pre-built, fabricated in a factory, put on a trailer and towed to its site, from which it can just as easily be jacked up again, put back on wheels and towed to another spot if the owner desires.

Thus, the diner is “personal property,” like the automobile, and can be written off at ten per cent a year for the first ten years for depreciation. And real estate tax assessments are likely to be lower than those on a stationary restaurant.

Lack of experience seems to be no serious drawback. As one diner man put it recently, “Experience is a help but not a ‘must’ in this game. Any guy with a flair for business can make money.” And the records bear him out – the failures are few.

* * *

Sentimental reasons put one couple into the diner business. They met a few years ago when they accidentally locked bumpers in the parking space behind a diner on New York’s Route 9. She was a cashier in the diner, he an Army mess-sergeant on leave.

After that, whenever he was home, he spent most of his time at the diner where he got bitten by the “diner bug” as well as the “love bug.” Finally, when he got out of the Army, both bugs took, with the result that today this married couple own their own diner. Like most operators, they bought it on time- paying a quarter down and the rest in 36 monthly payments – and they are having little trouble meeting the installments.

Oddly enough, if you are to believe the statistics, they are more likely to be successful with their diner than they are with their marriage. Divorce rates are high, but the company that sold them their diner on time hasn’t repossessed one since the Depression in the 30s! The manufacturers, Jerry O’Mahony, Inc., world’s largest maker of diners, won’t sell a diner until a thorough check of traffic and neighborhood needs at the proposed site has convinced them it will pay off.

What is the secret of the modern diner’s success?

In the first place, the dog wagon is as strictly American an enterprise as the hot dog that made it famous. An enterprising young man in Worcester, Massachusetts – Sam Jones – is credited with putting the diner on its road to success in 1882. Sam’s diner was a horse -drawn wagon with a window cut in its side, through which Sam peddled hot dogs, sandwiches and coffee to factory hands as he traveled from mill to mill in Worcester.

When Jones found that winter weather reduced business, he closed the window, cut in a door, and put up a small counter with stools so his customers could come in out of the cold. Sam built up a regular daytime route and his dog wagon business thrived.

By the turn of the century, diners – larger and more elaborate versions of Jones’ horse-drawn wagon were being turned out in Worcester by Charlie Buckley (Thomas H Buckley?) , ardently supported by Prohibitionists who saw in his touring white and gold dog wagons a potential answer to the corner saloon – a place serving good, inexpensive food without offering the temptation of liquor.

When electric cars began replacing horsecars on city streets, sharp businessmen with eyes for quick profits bought up the outmoded horsecars and set them up in out of the way neighborhoods as quick lunch spots. Then, diner operators turned manufacturers began producing diners built just for that purpose.

However, it wasn’t until the mid ’20’s that the diner people decided to push back their wooden counters to make room for booths. At that time, women – “flappers” in particular – began to patronize the dog wagons. But it wasn’t until right before World War II that the modern restaurant-type diner began to make its appearance, first on the roadsides and then in the larger cities and towns.

THE MODERN DINER – “cars” they are called in the trade – is popular because it is flexible. Operating 24 hours a day, it is geared to cater to the tourist in a sports shirt, the family trade, as well as the party-goer in black tie. Its menu includes full-course dinners as well as the old dog wagon stand-bys. The customer who stops by for a fast cup of coffee feels as welcome as the man who wants a leisurely steak. It is everybody’s place regardless of dress, time available or apetite.

The New Ideal Diner in Aberdeen, Maryland, located on Route 40, a broad four lane highway that connects Baltimore with the New Jersey Turnpike, is a good example. Sparkling and clean, its counter and comfortable booths can accommodate 102. Its menu caters to a wide range of eating tastes.

On the average day, you will find chauffeured limousines sharing its parking space with jeeps, hot rods and station wagons. You might even bump into Maryland’s Governor Theodore McKeldin, Jr. It is one of his favorite stopping-off places when he is traveling on the road.

The New Ideal’s owners, Steve Karas, Jr., and his uncle, Pete Mikes, paid O’Mahony’s $105,000 for it ($852,000 in 2009 dollars). They could have spent as little as $30,000 for a smaller unit, or as much as $150,000 for a larger one.

Each diner is more or less tailored to meet the purchaser’s needs. They can be bought stripped down except for essentials, or complete even to juke boxes, cigarette machines and toothpicks. The cost, naturally, varies accordingly.

Diners generally are not kept “in stock” as some impatient would-be owners expect. One day a little old man entered the showroom of Jerry O’Mahony, Inc., located in Elizabeth, N.J. O’Mahony, together with the Kullman Dining Car Company, Silk City Diner, Inc., and a half dozen others, builds the greatest number of the modern dog wagons sold.

The man carried a black bag and announced to O’Mahony’s president, L.F. Camardella, that he wanted to buy a diner. When Mr. Camardella began showing him typical plans, the old-time became impatient, picked up his bag and dumped it on the desk. Bundles of tightly rolled bills tumbled out.

“There’s $50,000 in cash,” the customer announced. “Now show me a diner. I want it this week.”

The money was the old fellow’s life savings, and one of the saddest moments in his life was when it was explained that he would have to wait at least 15 weeks while a “car” was built to his specifications. A certain amount of custom building is necessary in order to give each owner just what he wants.

Within the space of a few weeks recently, the boys at Jerry O’Mahony’s were confronted with these special design requests: one buyer wanted a mahogany paneled private office, complete with foldaway bed and built in sun lamp and TV set; another ordered tropical fish tanks installed in the glass-brick walls of the dining area; a third specified six counter stools fitted up to look like hobby horses, as entertainment for small fry.

Not long ago a former member of the State Department found time hanging heavy on his hands so he began shopping around for something to do. A friend suggested the diner business. He checked the possibilities and now runs a profitable “plush” diner at a busy crossroads in New York’s Westchester County.

He is having a grand time feeding hamburgers and table d’hote lunches to women shoppers and dinners to families of the community. And at night he features an outsize menu that includes gastronomical delights such as lobster, steaks and baked Alaska.