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Palaces of the People

Posted January 16, 2008 by Robert Strauss

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Palace Girl
Photo courtesy of Agency New Jersey

Enthroned in a plush booth, handed a king-size menu, generations of New Jerseyans have helped diners survive the fast-food challenge.

In the 1950s, during the heyday of the 24-hour diner, there was a ritual known as cutting the key. It was part publicity stunt, part christening—the landlocked equivalent of smashing a champagne bottle against the prow of a ship. On the day the new eatery opened, the owner would take the front-door key and ceremonially snip it to pieces.

“Why do we need a key?” the owner would proclaim. “We never close!”

The crowd would cheer and smile as the key was snipped, says Randy Garbin, a leading diner researcher. “Of course, that is what a diner is for,” he says. “Smiling.”

Garbin, founder of Roadside magazine and editor of the diner-dedicated roadsideonline.com, lives and works in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, just across the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge from Burlington County. When he started tracking diner lore seriously, in 1990, New Jersey had several dozen 24/7 diners, he estimates. Now, he says, the number is probably less than a dozen. But institutions like the Tick Tock on Route 3 in Clifton (see story, page 60) proudly carry on the round-the-clock tradition.

Diner culture in New Jersey has survived various onslaughts, notably the advent of fast-food along with rising land values and property taxes. According to a recent count  by Garbin, there are more than 370 diners in the Garden State, a number he says has held fairly constant in recent decades.

Germany has a chain of gleaming retro replicas called Sam Kullman Diners—named for the founder of one of New Jersey’s most prolific prefab diner manufacturers (see story, page 56). Steve Gorelick, associate director of the New Jersey Motion Picture & Television Commission, which finds in-state locations for movies, TV shows, and commercials, says he’s seen pictures of one of the German diners. “They have tables and chairs outside, like a café, which suggests to me they don’t really get the idea,” he says. “They’re gentrifying the diner, and the diner is not to be gentrified.”

The magic of diner culture was made clear to Gorelick when he was growing up in Edison. “My grandfather was a shy man who didn’t seem to have a lot of friends,” he recalls. “He sold paper goods, including diner placemats, paper cups, and plates. I never knew his world until he took me on his rounds one day. We went into the Peter Pank Diner in South Amboy, which is still around. He was greeted so warmly by everybody. He was in his element. It was tremendous for me to see.”

Friends and family are still the glue that holds diner culture together. Day or night, diners are havens of hospitality and testaments to the work ethic of those who run them as well as those who relax in them when work is done. Though we live in a time of 24/7 stock trading, e-mailing, and cable TV, the wee hours are not what they once were for diner life. In the early 1970s, the 24-hour diner was hit hard by the gradual disappearance of manufacturing plants where people worked around the clock.

“Third-shift workers at New Jersey factories just didn’t really exist any more,” says Garbin. “You always had clientele coming in from the bars, mixing with the more sober working crowd.”

That equilibrium began to change in the early 1970s, when New Jersey, along with about 30 other states, lowered the legal drinking age, in Jersey’s case to eighteen. In Garbin’s view, the combination of fewer late-shift workers and more teenage drinkers, who tended to get more bellicose than the over-21s, “put off both the non-drinking crowd and many diner owners, who didn’t want to deal with the drunks. To some owners, it wasn’t worth it anymore, combined with it being harder to find workers who wanted to work that hard overnight.”

In 1983, Congress passed a law raising the national drinking age to 21—a measure sponsored in the Senate by New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg and put on the House calendar by Rep. James J. Howard (D-Spring Lake Heights), who had also proposed the legislation setting the highway speed limit at 55 mph.

What helped diners hang on was their tradition of being multi-generational family businesses. “A diner, or a diner-like place, really needs a whole family,” says Tony Chigounis, a partner in Lacas Coffee Company and the son and nephew of diner owners. “You need to trust everyone you work with if you are going to be open those long hours.”

Chigounis, 58, grew up working in his father’s restaurant, the Greenbrier on Route 70 in Cherry Hill, facing the eastern end of the Garden State Racetrack. His uncle Gus owned the Nassau, also on Route 70 in Pennsauken but at the western end of the racetrack. In 1974, when his father, Terry Chigounis, died of a heart attack at age 54, Tony was 25. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, he was on his way to completing a Ph.D. in urban anthropology at Temple. But he permanently tabled his academic career and took over the Greenbrier, running it for twenty years until he sold it and joined Lacas Coffee in 1993. Lacas, itself a third-generation Greek-owned family business, supplies coffee and related supplies to more than 800 diners and restaurants in New Jersey.

“Like any other immigrant group, the generation of my father and uncle wanted their kids to get good educations and maybe not have to work so hard,” Chigounis says. “Some, like the Fifis family who own Ponzio’s [on Route 70 in Cherry Hill], went to college and learned business,” applying that knowledge to run their diners more efficiently.

One thing that has traditionally separated diners from other eateries is the sheer enormity of options. But as food costs rise, many diner owners are paring down. The venerable Mastoris Diner in Bordentown and the Club Diner in Bellmawr are among those that still offer about 200 items, virtually all prepared fresh on the premises. Bob Pantelous, owner of the Club (one of the 24/7 stalwarts), says he sells more cheeseburgers than anything else, but believes a diner isn’t a diner without something for everyone.

Smaller menus were also a side effect of the mad cow disease scare of 2003. “Mad cow made everyone wake up in that regard,” says George Vallianos, marketing consultant for the Delaware Valley Purchasing Group, a consortium of about 350 restaurants, including almost every diner in central and southern New Jersey. “We ended up having a tight meat supply. That drove prices up.” As more domestic cattle were slaughtered for meat instead of being kept for dairy production, he says, prices of milk, butter, and cheese went up. With many consumers switching from beef to chicken, more chickens were slaughtered instead of being kept for egg production, resulting in a cost hike on another diner commodity, eggs.

“It made people raise prices on the menus, and then think, Do we have to have everything under the sun?” Vallianos says. “Some diner owners started cutting the menu to a more reasonable size.” On average, he says, diner menus are about 15 to 20 percent smaller than they were in the ’80s.

Whatever else may change, the diner booth remains the great equalizer—privacy and plushness for all, whether you steer a corporation or a taxicab. Politicians have long congregated at diners. During her years as mayor of Cherry Hill, Susan Bass Levin held an informal open meeting several days a week over breakfast at Ponzio’s. Levin continued the tradition after joining the McGreevey and Corzine administrations. Even now, as deputy director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, she breakfasts at Ponzio’s weekly.

Around the corner from where Levin grew up in Bogota, the Bergen County political meeting place is the New Heritage Diner in Hackensack. It’s a short, equidistant walk from the offices of the Record newspaper on one side and the county office buildings on the other. The Trenton crowd favors the Mastoris, even though it’s a few miles east of the capital.

As the daytime chef at the Mastoris, Bill Politis is caretaker of one of the biggest menus in the state. He isn’t a member of the Mastoris family, but after 30 years on the job it’s a distinction without a difference. Politis was 21 when he arrived by ship from Greece in 1969. He worked in New Jersey restaurants for eight years before taking a job at the Mastoris. Now 59, he runs the joint with a smile and a lot of pot banging.

“You have to grow up in a diner to be where I am,” he says. “It’s not like a regular restaurant, where people come and go. Here, the bosses know how difficult the work is and pay you right.”

During peak hours, the kitchen brigade at Mastoris reaches twelve line cooks, twelve bakers, twelve dishwashers, and as many as 40 wait staff. “We do our best to make it just as good as a fancy restaurant,” Politis says. “We have banquets and tour buses and just plain regulars. We don’t have time to have arguments, so we don’t. You work very hard at a place like this and you come out at the end of the day like you have accomplished something.”

Robert Strauss, a former reporter for Sports Illustrated and the Philadelphia Daily News, lives in Haddonfield. He grew up in Cherry Hill, hanging out at Ponzio’s.


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