The Evolution of the American Diner

The Classic American Entrepreneurship

                        Why was the idea of owning a lunch wagon so appealing to working-class Americans at the turn of the century?

            Working class Americans at the turn of the century worked hard, and they worked hard for minimal pay. The working class scraped by doing manual labor, and dangerous labor in pursuit of the American dream. After Walter Scott decided to quit his job and create the lunch wagon business others followed suit.

            The appeal of owning your own lunch wagon is the same as the appeal today in the twenty-first century of owning your own business. Not only do you get to be your own boss, but you also get to make the rules and set the standards which your business runs by. It was common for lunch wagons to follow their own rules, and to have different food menus based upon their owners. One of the problems the lunch wagons ran into of course was the issue of remaining open late into the mornings, which was against their permits. The decision to do stay open late or to close before 10:00 am was made by each individual business man. Those who decided to stay open past the curfew on lunch wagons did so in an effort to make an extra buck. Dictating your own rules, work hours, and success widely appealed to the working class, who were subject to the exact opposite in their previous jobs.

            The varying menus of each lunch wagon were subject to more variability than the hours or location of lunch wagons. A menu was susceptible to not only the patrons of the lunch wagon, but also the tastes of the owners. While the lunch wagon was primarily horse drawn, the menus were limited to what could be easily transferred and prepared beforehand at home. For example, Walter Scott prepared all of his food at home beforehand because his small lunch wagon did not include a kitchen.[1] Of course, after the inclusion of more space to incorporate a small kitchen within the lunch wagon the menu possibilities greatly expanded.

            Another large factor which affected the food menus and success of the lunch wagons was the ethnic diversity of the owners. People from varying backgrounds left their jobs and pursued a career in the lunch wagon business. As Andrew Hurley states in his book, Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks, “The majority of diner builders, operators and customers were either immigrants or second-generation Americans. German, Irish, Italian, and Jewish families dominated the manufacturing end of the business. . .”[2] Due to this large diversity in the lunch wagon business, patrons were guaranteed to find varying flavors and types of foods from wagon to wagon, and often immigrants frequented wagons owned by others from their culture.

            A perfect example of a second-generation American finding his own personal success story within the lunch wagon business is Patrick Tierney. Patrick Tierney was the son of an Irish immigrant[3], and went on to build his own wildly successful diner company.

            This wide ethnic diversity within the diner business would continue for the rest of diner history.  On a phone interview, I had with Michael C. Gabriele, journalist, author, and member of the Nutley Historical Society, I asked him the hard-hitting question of “What is your favorite diner?”. Despite finding a new favorite diner almost constantly he stated that one of his favorites is, “The Wall Street Diner, its owned by a young Greek couple. They dreamed of having a neighborhood diner. It’s an old vintage stainless steel, Mahoney diner. They know what they’re doing. Their food is impeccable.[4] He continued to explain that in New Jersey it is very common for Greeks to run and operate diners, as they have been doing so for many years. Now days, there are more Hispanics and Asian people running diners along the east coast.

            The success of immigrants and second-generation Americans in the lunch wagon and diner business reinforces the classic American dream. Anyone, from any background, and any ethnicity can start their own business and create their own success. This ideal of American culture is deeply related to the success story of the diner, and its uniqueness to America.

          There’s no better way to put it than what Gabriele said during our interview about the success of diner owners, “They should be very proud, it’s a great success.”[5]
[1] Michael Karl Witzel, The American Diner (Osceola: MBI Publishing Company, 1999), 17.
[2] Andrew Hurley, Diners, Bowling Alleys and Trailer Parks: Chasing the American Dream in the Postwar Consumer Culture (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 34.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Interview with Michael C. Gabriele. Author of The History of Diners in New Jersey. Transcript in my possession.
[5] Ibid.

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