Steve Harwin stands in the gutted hulk of an old diner that's sitting on a flatbed trailer in the parking lot of a warehouse in Cleveland. Harwin looks around him at the toll time has taken on this relic of the past: stripped-out booths, stools, and kitchen equipment, conduit sticking out of gaps in the ceiling, missing wall panels that expose the structure's wooden frame.
Despite the mess, Harwin appears happy. He has a vision of the future — this dilapidated diner gleaming as brightly as it did when it was new. "This is history," he declares. "You can't throw away history."
A subcontractor interrupts Harwin's vision of the future to discuss the stainless steel he's suggested using for the window moldings. The moldings would look fine to almost anyone else, but Harwin doesn't think they're shiny enough. He admits later that few of the diner's future patrons will notice his extra attention to detail.
"A lot of times, it's not one part or two parts, it's the sum of all the parts," says Harwin. "You might not be able to say this and this and this is good, but the layman will look at the diner and it will look great. They may not know why, but it's because everything is done properly."
Harwin is one of only a handful of people in the United States who within the past few years have been restoring these unique relics of America's past. Diners have been around since the late 1800s, but the years before and after World War II are considered their golden era. The gutted diner for which Harwin was selecting window frames was a 1946 Silk City, built in that year by the Silk City division of the Paterson Vehicle Company in New Jersey.
What makes a diner a diner is a matter of debate, but generally it's a place that has a counter where people can sit on stools and eat, and perhaps booths for additional seating. The long rectangular shape and numerous windows of many diners make them appear to be converted railroad cars, but they rarely are. Diners traditionally have been constructed in factories, then shipped in one or more pieces to their sites.
Richard Gutman, whose business since 1979 has been consulting on some fifty diner renovations, believes one reason for the resurgence of diners in the Nineties ironically corresponds to why diners went into decline in the Sixties: the rise of chain restaurants. Gutman, the author of American Diner, Then and Now (Harper Perennial, 1993), says many people have grown tired of predictable and impersonal chain eateries.
"It's more interesting going to a diner," he explains. "The sole proprietorship is going to add more adventure to it because you don't really know what the food is going to be like."
Some refurbished diners serve as draws to other businesses, most notably the half-dozen owned by Harley-Davidson dealerships. Others operate as traditional stand-alone eateries. There are even a few chains, including the Angel's Diners, run by Denver-based ViCorp Restaurants Inc.
There are chic diners with menus that would make a short-order cook drop his spatula. San Francisco's sleek Fog City Diner, for instance, is a recreated rather than a renovated diner, and really more restaurant than diner. Its menu includes items such as brandelli (a type of pasta) with tomatoes, artichokes, and peas ($10.95) and barbeque roast quail with pecan-cornbread stuffing ($15.95). And then there are diners with diner food. On the menu of the renovated Clarksville Diner in Decorah, Iowa, there's a tuna-melt platter ($3.25) and, for the big spenders, spaghetti with garlic toast ($4).
According to Harwin, a diner that is thirty percent intact is worth restoring. He typically spends three to twelve months renovating and shipping them to their new locations. Prices vary depending on condition and size. Harwin was offered one diner free if he would remove it from the site, and the owner of another diner priced his at $70,000.
As for the restoration itself, he says, one might cost $20,000, while another more than $100,000, depending on what needs to be done. Harwin says, for instance, if the diner needs to have six seating booths that are beyond repair replaced, building new ones can cost $4,000. But if the diner has booths that only need to be reupholstered, $3,000 can be saved.
A hands-on entrepreneur, Harwin hires laborers and subcontractors — glaziers, carpenters — as needed. When a renovation has been completed, the new owner pays for the foundation and additions such as restrooms, storage space, and any backroom kitchen space not provided in the diner's original design.
Harwin's workplace, a parking lot owned by a shipping company, recently had three diners in various stages of restoration. The shipping company connection is convenient and appropriate: A key thing to remember about diners is that they can be moved.
Harwin moves restored diners from where they were purchased to where they will be set up, with a possible stop at a third location for the restoration work. One trip, he says, can run from $1,500 for shipping a small twelve-seat diner a few miles to more than $20,000 for shipping an eighty-seat diner several hundred miles. Harwin recalls driving one route in advance for moving a diner that was ten feet, four inches wide. He discovered that construction had narrowed a road to ten feet. Changing the shipping route added ninety miles and several hundred dollars to the bill. Although there are predictable profits in buying and selling diners, Harwin says, the risk is high in renovation work. Rotted framing hidden under wall panels or difficulties obtaining replacement materials can quickly convert a profit of several thousand dollars into a loss. "As soon as you get involved in a renovation, there are so many variables, there are no guarantees," he says.
Harwin's known for taking on "lost causes." Randy Garbin, publisher of Roadside, a quarterly newspaper for diner fans, says Harwin's work has shed a hopeful new light on diners in bad condition. "You look at them and you say, 'Well, Steve Harwin has taken a diner worse than this and brought it back to life, so anything is possible.'"
Harwin bought the diner with the stainless steel window moldings in Ono, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg. After he completed the renovation in Ohio, it was shipped to Boston where it will be used as a training site by the Log School Settlement House. At the Big Dig Diner, troubled youths will learn about the food industry while serving hungry customers.
Harwin says he paid $500 for the 1946 Silk City. The Log School, however, budgeted $125,000 for the project. It paid $35,000 to buy the renovated diner from Harwin, and the rest was spent for shipping, a $33,800 addition, kitchen equipment, and other start-up costs.
Harwin always aims for authenticity, though he does make concessions to the modern world. For the 1946 Silk City, he replaced a sliding door, popular in early diners, with a swinging door that is more in keeping with today's building codes. He also shortened a counter to make the diner accessible to the physically disabled.
Harwin nevertheless remains conscious of imparting the diner's original ambience. The swinging door, he says, will be noticed by only the most avid diner enthusiast. In addition, the portion of floor uncovered when the counter was shortened has been set with the same yellow and gray mosaic tiles that cover the rest of floor. The average customer will never guess the counter was shortened.
"Antique cars and boats are generally for one person's pleasure," he says, his gaze returning to the wreck that will soon be a gleaming, restored Silk City. "When this thing is done, thousands of people will get the enjoyment of eating at a diner."