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Livingston Public Library Presents "The History of Diners"

Barbara Anderson

Thursday, May 22, 2014 • 10:45pm

LIVINGSTON, NJ – Michael Gabriele, author of The History of Diners in New Jersey, did his homework before his Friends of the Livingston Public Library Literary Liaisons Series-sponsored presentation at The Livingston Public Library. He visited The Ritz diner for soup (matzo ball perhaps?), potato pancakes and a chat with the staff. They told him that their establishment was originally a “true” stainless steel diner named the Heritage Diner that was expanded and built upon in order to become the pink, turquoise and brick building it is today.

Chris Demidowich of the library’s Adult Services Department introduced Gabriele as a life-long resident of New Jersey. He told the audience that Gabriele graduated from Montclair State University, spent 35 years as a journalist, worked for publishing companies such as McGraw Hill, Fairchild and Cahners Publishing Group as managing editor, and is active in the Nutley Historical Society and the Clifton Arts Center.

The History of Diners in New Jersey is Gabriele’s second publication with The History Press, an independent publisher that focuses on “local interest” topics. His first book, The Golden Age of Bicycle Racing in New Jersey focused on where some of the first cycling clubs in the nation were formed.

Gabriele said he enjoyed working with the small publisher on the first book and that soon the talk of him writing another book about a famous feature of our state “diners” came to fruition. The History of Diners in New Jersey took 18 months of research and interviews, as well as many samplings of NJ’s diner cuisines.

“New Jersey is known as the ‘diner capital of the world’ and has more diners than any other state in the country,” said Gabriele. He indicated that part of the reason for this comes from the road and population density and part is because the original manufacturers of the structures were based in New Jersey factories in the early part of the 20th century.

Starting out as lunch wagons, the early diner versions were often on wheels and portable. Diner purists describe a “true” diner as a fully-equipped pre-fabricated structure with all the details already incorporated, manufactured in a factory and then delivered to a site versus constructed on site.

In 1912, manufacturer Jerry O’Mahony Diner Company in Elizabeth, sold his first diner structure called, Jack’s Quick Lunch. It resided where three trolley lines came together in West Hoboken.

Many of these first “diners” were made with state-of-the-art materials—mahogany and oak wood, marble counters and stainless steel fixtures. At the time, there was only enough room for stool seating at the counter, which lent itself to a “men only” patronage.

In the 1930’s, expansion and the addition of booths led to signage stating “Ladies Welcome.”

In his discussion, Gabriele touted diners as being “more than just a place to eat.”

He said that over the years, the diner continued to grow in popularity as a community gathering place and an intrinsic part of the state’s culture. An eclectic mix of people would sit at the counter and make conversation with strangers. Business men and construction workers sat side by side and teenagers and adult couples dined there with friends and dates. The staff knew patrons on a first name basis.

In the 60’s, the industry began to change. Diners needed to get bigger to accommodate more visitors and owners were no longer using pre-fabricated metal structures. The advent of many fast food chains was also detrimental to these small businesses.

After a slide show of famous New Jersey diners, Gabriele invited questions and discussion from the audience and an enthusiastic group of diner fans. When asked why many diners are Greek owned, the author said that after a large wave of Greek immigrants with very close family ties came to the US in the early 1900’s, many were employed in diners and stayed in the industry—just like many Italians worked in construction and Germans worked in bakeries.

Next, a lively discussion ensued about Leo and Morris Bauman who owned The Weequahic Diner in Newark, which always had lines out the door. Audience members said the diner was unique in the fact that much of their menu was not only standard American fare but that there was also a wide variety of Jewish food favorites on it as well. Guests shared that since this diner had been open “all the time,” a set of keys to lock the building could not be located on the day of Bauman’s funeral.

An attendee also mentioned that all true diners continue the tradition of serving pea soup on Thursdays.

Livingston resident Gail Blackman, who worked for the Kullman Dining Car Company as V.P. of Food Services, said she liked “when he [Gabriele] talked about diners being alive and well.”

Gabriele said that last month, “An original Sam Kullman diner was recreated for the fourth time in Germany.” He added, “They serve traditional American diner food as well as German fare.”

The iconic Kullman cars were silver and red and are what many Jerseyan’s recognize as being the “classic” diner in appearance.

Blackman said her career with the famous diner manufacturer went through many changes along with the industry. She said that when the full-size structures that they produced for such companies as White Castle became less important, the company switched to a cart and kiosk business for companies such as Starbucks and Disney.

Gabriele wrapped up the presentation by autographing and selling his book. He stressed that even in the light of the changes to the industry—the diner is an important part of New Jersey’s history and culture. He stated, “There’s always a story; always a good memory about a diner.”

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