My Life in Diners

How does one go about designing a diner? Read this story an find out.

In the ’40s, nine of the dozen U.S. dining-car companies were in the New Jersey area—from Mountain View Diners in Singac (now called Little Falls) to Kullman Industries in Newark to DeRaffle Manufacturing Company in New Rochelle, NY—all within a 35-mile radius of each other. For some reason, diners have become an important part of life in New Jersey.. I got a job with Fodero Dining Car Company in Bloomfield in 1960, not long after I graduated from the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. The trade school sat on the top floor of Arts High School on High Street in Newark and I learned from the same professors who taught at the Pratt Institute for one-tenth of the price (It could have been even cheaper; because I lived in East Orange, literally 100 yards from the Newark border, I paid $350 a year, while city residents paid only  $50 a year). Sadly, the state stopped funding the school in 1995 and it shut down shortly thereafter.

Designing diners allowed me to be involved with everything from  “back of the house” kitchen design to detail work on the public areas. Prospective buyers were not shy about their preferences and it was my job to turn those ideas into reality. It’s not just decorating, it’s planning how to make every space in the building safe, efficient, and appealing. Small items, things the public take for granted, make a big difference and I’d have to focus on each one, like the placement of the waitress service station or the amount of aisle space the amount of aisle space of between booths so that the waitresses can do their jobs and customers can share a private conversation without feeling like everyone else in the place will hear them..

I’d regularly have to negotiate with architects or contractors to make sure that my vision was executed accurately. I worked with one architect who wanted to put the handicap ramp inside the diner, taking up valuable space that could have been used for booths. I got my way, and the ramp stayed on the outside of the building. There was another time I was working with a the owner of one diner who wanted to put the center island of a kitchen 30 inches from the stove. I wanted it to be 48 inches; sure, it requires the worker to take a time-wasting extra step forward when getting something off the broiler, but putting more space between the line cooks and open flames meant these key employees didn’t have to spend any extra time in the local burn unit. That’s the only time I didn’t get my way.

When I was starting out, stainless-steel diners were primarily built in a shop, trucked to the job site and dropped onto a prepared foundation. The company I worked for, Fodero, built everything from tiny diners—a 17-foot-by-40-foot model (think of the Summit Diner) to the massive Country Club Diner in Philadelphia (seating capacity of more than 300), whose vestibule, three dining areas and bakery counter were shipped from Bloomfield in 21 sections. The majority of the ones we built seated about 250 people, mostly in booths. Pat Fodero came up with the idea of circular booths and I installed the first ones at The Forum Diner on Route 4 in Paramus. As it turns out, waitresses loved the them they could hold seven people comfortably, and  more people meant bigger checks and larger tips. That gave Pat an even bigger idea—why not create the horseshoe booth, which could seat eleven? Another funny moment came when we completed The Forum. The bill came in at $213,000, which upset Angelo, one of the owners. He didn’t think the pricetag was exorbitant, he was superstitious about the number thirteen. “You can make it $212,000 or $214,000,” he told us. Of course, we chose the latter!

Eventually, I created my own design firm, Interiors by Francesco and learned that I’d be living the same workday as my clients. Early on, I got a call from a client who was building a second diner. He was asking me silly questions, and in the background, I could hear I could hear the cha-ching of the cash register and him saying, “Thank you, ma’am. Thank you, sir.” It was 1:30 in the morning! Apparently, if he was working the overnight shift, so was I. To this day, I have no idea what it was about…

Most of my business came from word of mouth. John Balis was one of my favorite people to work with. John emigrated from Greece, penniless. He was passionate, loved his work and got along with everybody. He and I visited Las Vegas quite often for inspiration because we were constantly trying to come up with new ideas.. Once,  he sat down at the poker table while his cousin Billy and I walked around. When we came back, John had $5,000 in chips. I said, “John, that’s it! Get up now.” But he wanted to keep going. We came back an hour later and he’d lost his winnings—and more on top of that. He loved life, was no good at poker, but sure knew how to run a business.

My favorite design for diners has always been the stainless-steel model, Art Deco style.  The Phily Diner, in Runnemede, is probably my favorite example of that. A sports bar next to the Phily is now going up. That ought to translate into some latenight business for the Phily.When we put up the Phily, John gave me free reign to do whatever I wanted. I made the facade and vestibule in the neon image of the old jukeboxes and in the dining room, I created a barrel-shaped ceiling that was covered in a glossy laminate and had individual channels that followed its contours. When light hits it, you get an interesting play of refractions off it. I feel like I was really innovative here (and apparently others agreed, because I won a design award for it), . Of course, there was  the small matter of the diner’s name. I never saw the sign before it went up, so I show up for the grand opening and say to John, “That’s an interesting way to name a diner.” He tells me that he’d asked everyone how to spell it and they all assured him that it was with one “l” and says that he found out too late, so he just kept it. I personally kind of like it.

John was an amazing man, and he was sadly killed outside one of his restaurants, defending the very thing he worked so hard to build. He had so much pride in his work. He was so well-liked by everybody that 5,000 people attended his funeral and the procession was two miles long.John Balis, like so many of his countrymen, was one of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. When I stop into a diner, the first thing they do is offer me a cup of coffee. I usually have that and some soup. If I ate what every client wanted to feed me, I’d weigh 300 pounds! We usually sit at the one booth by the register that’s reserved for the owners. The Greeks are such a strong community that you’ll often find them, on their one day off from their own diner, visiting friends or relatives at another diner. My favorite diner food is breakfast: eggs over medium, home fries and rye toast, with a good cup of coffee.

I’m retired now, occasionally taking on consulting work. I don’t spend any of my free time frequenting diners now. Truthfully, the only diners I ate in over the years were my clients. And today, I don’t have much curiosity to see if anything’s been done to my designed. I’ve had enough of the business.

And the only thing I regret is not learning the Greek language so I could communicate with my clients even better. When they’d start chattering among themselves because they didn’t want me to understand what they were talking about, I would say the only phrase I knew, which meant, “Does anyone here speak English?” That would shut crack them up. It was a great way to break the ice and make everybody feel at home.
And my one secret after all these years? The Mark Twain Diner in Union makes the best cheesecake.

Annemarie Conte is a freelance writer. Don’t tell anyone, but she’s got a favorite cheesecake too (and it isn’t at the Mark Twain).

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