Silk City Diner- near Carney’s Point/Deepwater, NJ

We saw this one in New Jersey, near Carney’s Point. It’s a Silk City. It’s hard to tell precisely what it is, I don’t recall there being any signage on it. A large porch has been added, as has a handicapped ramp, which in conjunction with the roof addition, obscures the majority of the diner. There’s an open/closed sign in the front door and tables on the porch, so I can only assume its still a restaurant of some sort.

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A view from the side. It looks like the roof addition does not actually cover the roof or protect the diner, it’s just for the porch. The diner may have been painted that red color at one point.
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A different day, in the pouring rain

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The Old Dog Wagon Puts on the Dog

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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.

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The Roadside Diners Are Rolling

From September 1953’s CORONET

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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.

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West Shore Diner- Lemoyne, PA

The West Shore Diner was built in the 1930s by the Patterson Vehicle Company of Patterson, New Jersey. It may be the only surviving Silk City diner with this narrow floor plan. It appears it may have originally been all stools, but that at some point, the back wall was bumped out. This moved the backbar out the back a bit, allowing the counter to be moved further back, freeing up space for some deuce booths on the outside wall. The ceiling is similar to other silk city diners, but as it is so much narrower, it is steeper on the sides, and does not have the elegant curve of later models. Dark woodwork, tile and formica make up most of the interior, while the exterior has been repainted time and time again. The West Shore shows its 70+ years of age, but is a unique example of early New Jersey diner manufacture. his is my go-to diner in the Harrisburg area, and one of the best I’ve been to. It is one of the friendliest around. The food is excellent, and comes in enormous portions at bargain prices. They have great t-shirts, too, which is always a plus. You can’t go wrong with a stop at the West Shore.
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A more recent, more drab paint scheme.
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