The American Diner

empire-dinerMy first roadside diner experience came as a young man in my early twenties while on a road trip with a friend to visit their family in Mississippi. As we were passing through the state of Louisiana we came upon what looked like an oversized Airstream travel trailer parked on the side of the road. Its stainless steel exterior was trimmed in blue and white, with a solid blue awning over the door. On the roof was a large dark blue sign that read “Paradise Diner, Stop In” in bold white letters. And so we did.

Diner Builder

The following nineteen diner manufacturing companies are listed chronologically either by the year they were founded, or when they entered into the diner building industry. The majority have shuttered their doors, although a few are still in business.
1889, Charles H. Palmer, Worcester, MA. First to receive a patent for his design of a night lunch wagon and the first successful wagon builder. Fire destroyed his factory in 1901.
1891, T. H. Buckley Lunch Wagon Mfg., Worcester, MA. Known as the “Lunch Wagon King,” Buckley set up wagons in 240 towns throughout the country. The company closed in 1908.
1904, Closson Lunch Wagon Company, Glenn Falls, NT. Thought to be the first to bring electricity Into the lunch wagon. Also his wagons were quite spacious for the times, seating as many as 11 people inside. In 1912 Closson sold his company to the to E. T. Welch who moved it to his jelly plant in Westfield, New York. The company declared bankrupt in 1916.
1905, Patrick J. Tierney, New Rochelle, NY. “Pop” Tierney began building lunch wagons in the garage behind his house. After his death, his sons Edward and Edgar took over the business, renaming it P. J. Tierney Sons, Inc. The company closed 1927.
1906, Worcester Lunch Car
, Worcester, MA. They built a total of 651 diners. The last, Lloyd’s Diner of Johnston, RI (now Bobby’s Girl Diner of New Hampton, NH), rolled off the assembly line in 1957.
1913, Jerry O’Mahony, Bayonne, NJ. The leading diner manufacturer for several decades, O’Mahony gave many builders their start in the industry. Many of their diners built in the 40s and 50s are still around. The facility was closed in 1956
1923, Ward & Dickinson, Silver Creek, NY. Charles Ward and Lee F. Dickinson built distinctive diners based on railroad and trolly car designs. The most prolific diner builders in the Lake Erie region of NY. They closed in 1940.
1927 Kullman Dining Car Co., Lebanon, NJ. Founded by Samuel Kullman, a former accountant for P. J. Tierney Sons. After several relocations they moved to their current state-of-the-art facility in Lebanon. Robert, Sam’s grandson, is the company’s president. Always a builder of high-quality diners, now known as Kullman Industries, constructing modular buildings for U.S. embassies, schools, prisons, and bank buildings.
1927, Silk City Diners, Paterson, NJ. The company began in 1886 as wagon builders, then car, truck and bus bodies before starting “Silk Street Diners” in 1927. Their standard units were built six or eight at a time in various color schemes and were the lowest priced diners available until production ceased in 1964.
1927, J. G. Brill Company, Philadelphia, PA. Brill introduced a line of all-steel diners. The division shut down in 1932. The only surviving example of their work is The Capital Diner of Lynn, MA
1931, Bixler Manufacturing Company, Norwalk, OH. Bixler diners were wider than normal for the times, featuring double hung windows, barrel roofs and fancy end profiles. They shut their doors in the late 1930s.
1932, Paramount Diners, Oakland, NH. Famous for their stainless steel interiors, Paramount was the first to offer all stainless steel exteriors. They also developed and patented the split-construction method used widely in today’s modular building industry.
1933 DeRaffele Manufacturing Company, Inc., New Rochelle, NY. Angelo DeRaffele began as a carpenter for P. J. Tierney Sons. Twelve years later he began building diners at the old Tierney plant. He was joined by his son Philip. Today they are the world’s largest maker of diners.
1933, Fodero Dining Car Company, Bloomfield, NJ. Joseph Fodder was an alumni of both P. J. Tierney Sons and Kullman before starting his own company. Fodero diners were some of the more stylish in the industry. They went out of business in 1981.
1938, Valentine Manufacturing Company, Wichita, KS. Most of Valentines units were located in the mid-west and western parts of the country. Their most popular model was the “Little Chef”, an eight or ten stool one-man operation, with a take-out window. 
1939, Mountain View Diners, Singac, NJ. This company outsold all other manufacturers in the 1940s, shipping units all over the country. Attempting to go public in 1956 the company floundered went out of business.
1949 Manno Dining Car Company, Fairfield, NJ. Founded by Ralph Manno and Vincent Giannotti, both former employees of Kullman Diners. They began as diner renovators but have gone on to build all types of diners from all brick “colonial” style to some with almost all-glass facades and interesting stainless steel work.
1966, Musi Dining Car Company, Carteret, NJ. Founder Ralph Musi is a former Pullman Dining Car employee. They specialize in building new Colonial and Mediterranean style diners. 
1992, Starlite Diners, Holly Hill, FL.This new company offers standard 14 ft. by 76 ft. diners that seats 52 people. They also build custom units seating as many as 150 people. Starlite most recently is the builder of Denny’s Classic Diners for that restaurant chain.

Inside, along the windows were six or seven royal blue and white leatherette booths with Formica tables. Down the middle was a white Formica counter lined with several barstools sporting blue leatherette seats. And chrome was everywhere.

skyline-diner-interior-1Behind the counter was a stainless steel wall with a large rectangle hole for passing food from the kitchen to the waitresses. On one side of the window was an array of coffee pots and on the other, a glass display containing slices of pies with swirls of toasted meringue piled at least four-inches high.

The menu was surprisingly modest, unlike modern diners of today where the menus resemble a short novel. This most likely, we surmised, was due to limited storage space in its small kitchen. My friend ordered a cheese burger with everything, extra pickles, and fries. I opted for the daily blue-plate special—meatloaf, mashed potatoes with brown gravy, and green beans. I still remember how impressed we were with the freshness and quantity of food on our plates. Both the mashed potatoes and the fries were the real deal, no frozen or dehydrated potatoes. And my green beans tasted like they were picked just that morning. Since then, I’ve made it a point to visit other roadside diners when the opportunity arises, as well as some stand alone units. And for the most part I’ve always been amazed at both the quantity, quality, and reasonable prices of their offerings.

Most historians agree that the diners origin can be traced back to Walter Scott, a newspaper pressman at the Providence Journal who, in 1872, left the presses to sell late night coffee and sandwiches from a horse-drawn wagon parked outside the newspaper building. Soon, other enterprising young men began operating their own late night lunch wagons.

Coming out at dusk after most restaurants closed, these food wagons, know as “Nite Owls,” provided a cheap meal for evening-shift workers, theatergoers, and anyone else who was out late at night and hungry.

These first food wagons offered no tables, no chairs, and no protection from inclement weather. Customers had to eat their food while sitting on the curb or take it elsewhere to enjoy. But with the growing popularity of lunch wagons, so grew their evolution. In 1887 Samuel Jones redesigned his lunch wagon making it possible for customers to eat on a few stools inside. His new wagon was referred to as a “rolling restaurant.” And just as their design evolved so did their name. Folks began referring to them as “lunch cars,” then “dining cars,” and by 1924 simply “diners.”

palmer-lunch-wagon-advertismentSome entrepreneurs discovered early on that building lunch cars was far more profitable than running them. One such businessman was T. H. Buckley of Worcester, Massachusetts who in 1887 constructed the first truly noteworthy lunch car he named “White House Cafe.” Soon Buckley’s lunch wagons became so popular that he was known as the “Lunch Wagon King.”

In 1898, Buckley renamed his company the T. H. Buckley Lunch Wagon Manufacturing and Catering Company. Not only did Buckley’s new company manufacture some of the finest lunch wagons of the times, they also dealt in cart supplies including dishes, knives, and decorative items. Buckley was also the first to add a cook stove to his lunch wagons.

Thomas Buckley died in 1903 at the age of 35, although his company continued producing lunch wagons until the mid 1900s. On May 14, 1961 the equipment, supplies, and all assets of T. H. Buckley Lunch Wagon and Catering company were liquidated at auction.

lunchwagonancestryhutchinsonks.jpgThree years after Buckley passed away two new entrepreneurs, Philip H. Duprey and Grenville Stoddard,  became the next icons of the dining car industry. Founded in the city of the same name, Worcester Lunch Car and Carriage Company was the first to apply for and receive a patent on their diners. Their “Fancy Night Cafes” featured separate dining rooms, indoor bathrooms, a dining counter with fixed stools, and beautiful appointments. Unfortunately WLCC also succumbed to the times and shuttered is doors in 1957.

In the 1930s diners began to take on a streamlined futuristic look, with bullet-shaped exteriors and chrome and leatherette interiors, in an effort to upgrade their image. After World War II, diner builders continued to upgrade there units with Formica countertops, wood paneling, large windows, and terrazzo floors.

The Way dinerNew Jersey became known as the diner capital of the world with some 600 diners, with New York running a close second. More than 350,000 Greek immigrates coming to the U.S., many settling in the New York/New Jersey area, brought their business and coffeehouse smarts which explains why so many diners in that area are Greek owned.

By the 1970s America’s interest in fabricated diners began to decline in favor of fast-food establishments. Many old diners responded by covering their stainless exteriors with brick or stone and adding mansard roofs. Some even added new additions to expand seating and production capacity. Diner manufacturers began closing their doors, and the three remaining companies began to fabricate new built-in-place diners.

1950s-dinerToday, interest in the American diner has seen a revival of sorts. Many vintage diners have been given a new life by relocating to new sites in the U.S. as well as in Europe. Manufacturers of diner structures are experiencing orders for new units and remodeling projects in a retro style. The Massachusetts historical Commission has placed all vintage functioning diners in that state on the National Register of Historic Places, and nominations from other states continue to increase every year.

Diners have been a part of the American landscape for over 100 years and their influence has touched our lives in many aspects including cooking, dining, design, culture and more.

Want to lean more about American diners? Pick up the book American Diner Then & Now written by Richard Gutman and published by Johns Hopkins University Press.


Take me out to the ball game . . .

When I was quite young, my father, an avid baseball enthusiast, was a driver for the local city bus line. In order to make extra money, during baseball season he would request to drive charters to the home games of our local baseball farm team, the Cats. One of the perks of being a charter driver was that he got free passes to watch the game. Many times he would take my mom and me with him. Other times mom would walk me to the bus stop and put me on his bus so he and I could have a father-son night out.

Even though I enjoyed the ball game and time with my father, the most exciting part of these evenings took place after the game. After we dropped the passengers off and returned to the “yard,” I got to accompany my dad inside the bus company building, affectionately referred to by the drivers as the “Club House.” It was there that my father reconciled his fares—transfer tickets, monies, logs, etc.—and turned them into the cashier. Afterwards he would take me downstairs where there were showers, lockers, and pool tables. I never tired of my visits to  the Club House.  

Needless to say, trips to the ball game always meant a special treat to snack on and a soda to wash it down. It was here that I was introduced to the delicious magic of Cracker Jacks. My dad would usually buy two boxes—one for me, one for himself—but of course, I got both prizes.

Cracker Jack has been around for some 120 years. If all of the Cracker Jack sold during that time were laid end-to-end they would circle the earth more than seventy-one times.

F. W. Rueckheim

The story of Cracker Jack began when twenty-three-year-old Frederick William Rueckheim immigrated from Germany to America in 1869, seeking a new start in life after the Prussian-Austrian war. At first Frederick worked as a farmhand for his uncle who owned land in Washington Heights, a small town south of Chicago that was eventually integrated into the city. For this, he was paid $150 a year. But Frederick sought bigger things in life so after  the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 he moved to the city to help with the removal of debris left by the tragic disaster.

Louis Rueckheim

In the mid nineteenth century, popcorn had become a delicious and affordable American treat. And because the ingredients were plentiful and cheap, making and selling popcorn was a potentially good business opportunity. So in 1971 Frederick took his life savings of $200  and partnered with William Brinkmeyer (whose candy business was destroyed in the Chicago fire) to start a popcorn and confectionary company. They located their company on 113 Fourth Avenue in Chicago, where workers who were rebuilding the city provided them a readymade customer base. By the end of the next year Frederick bought out his partner and sent for his younger brother, Louis Rueckheim to join him in his venture. Together they formed F. W. Rueckheim & Brother with  Frederick being responsible for strategy and marketing, while Louis’ was in overseeing manufacturing.

The Rueckheim bothers business—producing popcorn bricks and other popcorn products— grew rapidly, requiring them to move the business five times over the next ten years. They finally settled down in a rented three-story brick structure on South Clinton street. But in 1887 the building, equipment and inventory were destroyed by fire. However within six months the brothers were able to regroup their business. This time they moved the factory into a new building on Deplanes Avenue with new equipment and a sprinkler system.

Although business was good, Fredrick and Louis wanted to expand their product line so the brothers began experimenting with a new confection that incorporated popcorn peanuts, and molasses. In 1893 their new product was introduced to the public at the World’s Columbia Exposition as “Candied Popcorn and Peanuts.” Unfortunately, although people loved the taste of the new product, they didn’t like how the stickiness of the molasses caused the product to clump together, making it messy and difficult to eat.

As a result of the Exposition feedback, Louis set out to solve the stickiness issue. In 1896 he successfully developed a formula that made the molasses coating dry and crisp—a formula that remains a closely guarded secret of the Cracker Jack Company, even today. In fact, since Louis Rueckheim developed his secret coating, the Cracker Jack formula has changed only  one time. After Borden purchased the company in 1964, they exchanged white sugar for corn syrup.

Deplanes Ave Building

It was also in 1896 when the Rueckheim brother’s popcorn, peanut, and molasses confection received and trademarked the name Cracker Jack. Legend has it that after a salesman (or production manager) tasted the creation, he exclaimed, “That’s a cracker jack!”—a slang term at the time that meant  “something exceptional, splendid, or excellent. Thus the name was born. Later that spring F. W. Rueckheim & Brother began a national promotional campaign, manufacturing and shipping four and a half tons of Cracker Jack a day throughout the United States to backup the campaign.

For the first ten years Cracker Jack was sold from large tubs where store clerks scooped it into a bag or other container.  Then in 1899 Henry Gottlieb Eckstein developed the “waxed sealed package” for the company, the moisture proof package still used today. That packaging allowed Cracker Jack to retain its freshness and be distributed worldwide in its own box. Eckstein’s contribution also resulted in him being made a partner in 1902, and the company name changed to Rueckheim Bros. & Eckstein.

In 1908 songwriter Jack Norworth was on the New York subway when he spotted a sign that  said “Ballgame Today at the Polo Grounds.” That sign began him thinking of baseball lyrics which he jotted down. When he arrived at work he immediately got with his friend Albert Von Tilzer who put the words to music. From this collaboration came the song containing the line that would come to immortalized Cracker Jack, “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack.” And although Frederick was in charge of marketing, he had nothing to do with this, one of the most famous publicity campaigns in the Company’s history.

First performed at the Ziegfeld Follies by Norworth’s wife, soprano Nora Bayes, the song quickly became a standard at every major league baseball park in America, and one of the country’s most widely sung songs, providing Cracker Jack years of free publicty. It is interesting to note that at that time neither Norworth or Tilzer had ever been to a baseball game. It would be 32 and 20 years later respectively before the two songwriters would see their first game.

Another major marketing idea, including prizes in each box of Cracker Jack, was also one that Frederick Rueckheim may have “borrowed” from a rival, the Checkers candy company. While some say that the practice actually started around the turn of the century, the phrase “A prize in every box” was added to the Cracker Jack label in 1912, according to company history.

The first Cracker Jack prizes were paper, and included items like dolls, games, and pictures of movie stars and baseball players. There were also metal prizes produced by the Tootsietoys Company of Chicago. These toys included thimbles, irons, animal figures and tops. Then there were the coupons printed on all Cracker Jack labels that could be redeemed for a wide array of toys, jewelry, books, table linens, and sporting goods. And regardless of what the prizes were, they had to appeal to both boys and girls alike.

The iconic characters, Sailor Jack and his dog Bingo, that appear on all Cracker Jack packaging were first introduced in 1916 in print advertisements. In 1918, it was decided to add Sailor Jack and his dog to the box, a decision that turned out so popular that they still appear on all Cracker Jack packaging, even today. 

In 1922, the company changed its name to The Cracker Jack Company.

One of the most successful Cracker Jack marketing campaigns  of all times took place from May of 1933 to May 1936. The Cracker Jack Mystery Club offered membership by collecting and mailing the company 10 Presidential Coins (later 3, then 5), which could be found inside boxes of the molasses coated popcorn and peanut treat with question marks on the label. The Cracker Jack company would stamp the  back of your coins with “cancelled” and return them with a membership certificate and small gift. There was a total of thirty-one coins (Grover Cleveland’s two non-consecutive terms were stamped on the same coin) beginning with George Washington and ending with Franklin D. Roosevelt. More than 200,000 children join the Mystery Club during those three years.

The Cracker Jack company was purchased by Borden in 1964 after a bidding war with 

Frito-Lay. Then in 1997, Borden sold the brand to PepsiCo, who quickly incorporated it into their Frito-Lay portfolio and production was moved to the Wyandot Snacks plant in Marion, Ohio.

On April 30, 2013, in an effort to reinvigorate waining sales, Frito-Lay announced a slight reformulation of the original Cracker Jack by adding more peanuts and updating prizes to be more relevant to today’s consumer. They also announced expanding the product line with the addition of a new popcorn product called Cracker Jack’D. Distinct form the original, Cracker   Jack’D comes in a number of flavors, including Power Bites a caffeine laced product. Packing for the new line is also distinct, using all black rather than the traditional red and white label and featuring a close-up version of Sailor Jack and Bingo. Cracker Jack’d does not include prizes in its packages.

There you have it, the story of Cracker Jack. So next time you go to a ballgame, why not enjoy it with a box or two of the sport’s favorite candied popcorn and peanut snacks. And be sure to keep the prizes for yourself