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Decline of the American Diner
What led to the decline of the family-friendly American diner?
Along with the cultural renaissance, bra-burning feminism, and rock and roll of the 1960’s came the decline of the traditional American diner. The introduction of highways and the rising car culture of America brought competition to the food industry. Until the 1960’s, diners were the main source of food and rest for travelers on the road. Unfortunately, diners began to find that their clientele were being snatched away to fast-food joints, food chains, and drive-ins. By the 1960’s, author Michael Karl Witzel states that there barely more than 5000 diners in operation. This small number of diners continued to wain as motorists and travelers began to choose convenience and speed over traditional dining.
Restaurant chains and fast-food joints molded their personal styles and appeal from the previous success of the American diner. Along with quick service, restaurant chains offered booth seating, bar seating, table seating, and drive-in service. Convenience and choice have always appealed to the American people, and the rising restaurant chains used that knowledge to their advantage and created the fast-food industry which exists today.
Instead of throwing their personal savings into owning a fully operational and appealing diner, it became easier for American entrepreneurs to, “slap together a temporary wooden stand, throw up some overhead canopies, and hire a bevy of beautiful carhops.” The tactic of using beautiful young women to attract customers has been a guaranteed appeal for all of history, and it was a successful one within the diner business as well. Classic diners had a difficult time competing with the appeal of women skating around between cars, delivering quick and cheap food to patrons who did not have to leave their cars to be served.
Creating a food franchise is what ultimately led to the decline of the American diner. Even with the appeal of beautiful women on roller skates, and the convenience of drive-ins, classic diners retained an audience with the American middle-class. Andrew Hurley explains this, “At first, people who had grown up with the working-class diner were intimidated by the newer restaurants where they were unsure of how to dress of what codes of conduct were acceptable.” Comfort and familiarity won out against the rising fast-food restaurant, until franchises began to dominate the food industry. Franchising ensured reliability and consistency, no matter what state or city the restaurant was located. The convenience of being able to spot a familiar franchise, and know it was a safe choice was widely appealing, and still is today. Diners, despite having prefabricated designs and shells, varied widely in food and management unlike franchises.
The world-famous franchise of McDonalds started out as a drive-in in San Bernardino, California. In 1948 the McDonald brothers made a daring change to their business and got rid of car hops. Instead of car hops they introduced the self-service walk-up counters. Though, even with this change McDonalds did not stand out from the other rising restaurants in California. What separated their business from others was their marketing strategy of building their business fronts in neighborhoods of schools and suburbs. This tactic attracted upper-class families with children, and young children themselves. The McDonald brothers set a precedent for other entrepreneurs which allowed for the rise of other fast-food restaurants such as Carter’s, Biff’s, Hardee’s, Sandy’s, and many more. Along with the rise of the convenient fast-food restaurant came the decline of classic American diners. National campaigning and advertisement paved the way for the rise of the fast-food restaurant, and ultimately the decline of the American Diner.
Despite diner sales dropping dramatically in the 1960’s, traces of the classic diner style are still found and commonly implemented in fast-food chains. For example the menu boards behind the counter which customers continue to order from today, resemble the menu boards which existed in diners. The choice of seating such as stools, tables, or booths also remain from the influence of the American diner. These remnants and many more can be found everywhere, if you know what you are looking for. Even with these remnants of diners surviving, the American diner became a cultural relic. As Michael C. Gabriele said in our phone interview, “The business really fell off in a lot of ways.” Witzel, The American Diner, 99. Ibid., 101. Hurley, Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks, 95. Ibid., 99-100. Ibid., 95. Ibid., 96. Witzel, The American Diner, 118-9. Hurley, “From Hash House to Family Restaurant”, 1304. Ibid. Interview with Michael C. Gabriele. Transcript in author’s possession.