On Saturday morning, I woke up after a night that my brain had devoted to starting my own diner. I have no clue why my brain thought this needed doing. I am absolutely certain that although I spent at least six years working at various restaurants in a number of roles, if I actually tried to open a restaurant, I would be broke in very short order.
With that in mind, I will share with anyone who wishes the concept for my diner, confident that if someone steals any of this, I’ll have a fun place to go, right up until they go broke.
Location, Location, Location
My diner (cleverly named “The Diner”) needs to be situated on a high traffic road in a neighbourhood with at least one retirement home, a low rent apartment building, some homeless within walking distance, and a mix of some commercial and light industrial nearby. I’m dreadfully unoriginal, as this very much describes where I am situated now. The point is, The Diner cannot be placed in an affluent neighbourhood.
In the ideal, it would be a small, free-standing structure, but given land prices around here, it’s probably an end unit on a strip mall. There is a long counter lined with stools, and a single row of booths along the windows. It is brightly-lit and cheerful, with lots of easily cleaned surfaces, because I assure you the whole thing gets scrubbed every night.
There’s a small jukebox at every table. You can punch in your song for a nickel. Unlike the image above, there is a digital screen showing upcoming playlist. In the absence of songs selected by patrons, the machine generates its own playlist with a heavy emphasis on 60s/70s/80s hits. If you want to bump your song up on the list, you can add more nickels until it gets to the top. You can also pay to bump up other patron’s selections if you like them. If there are no customers left in the restaurant, or Baby Shark exceeds 3 entries on the list, the staff can remove paid entries that might drive them insane. The jukebox fees are automatically added to the table bill, so no one needs to go looking for nickels.
The diner opens at 5:00 AM and closes at 11:00 PM, 7 days a week, except for all federal and provincial holidays, and on the day of any municipal, provincial, or federal election. We’d rather our staff (and you) went out and did stuff elsewhere on those day. There’s a 35 minute time limit on the seating, unless the restaurant is half capacity or lower, in which case you can linger. Don’t argue with the staff when they tell you it is time to go.
When you come in, you will be required to put your phones or tables in a small Faraday locker by the door. The only screens permitted in The Diner are the jukebox playlists. There are no TVs up on the wall, just music to listen to, and it is never so loud as to make it impossible to have a civil conversation at your table. Yes, this is deeply upsetting, but you can either live without your device for 35 minutes, or you can eat elsewhere. Police and fire workers may lay their phones on the table while they eat at the counter, and are on the honor system to only respond to service calls. When you pick your locker and place the phone it it yourself, you take away a key with a keychain made out of one of those toys from the carnival game where you reach in with a claw to grab a small stuffed animal. No two of them are the same. You’ll get your devices back on your way out. You might stare at the lockers nervously on your first visit, but we’re hoping that you get used to disconnecting, however briefly, over time.
The basic concept: cheap and cheerful
The food is basic. The point is to get a fast, cheap, simple meal not unlike what you would have cooked for yourself at home, and without adding stress to your grocery bill for the week. The Diner is about teaching and re-enforcing a social contract, so there are rules to the place:
- You phone goes in the box or you don’t go in The Diner. Yes, we understand that you have a child in school, a dog with the dog-sitter, a boss with a complex, or whatever. We are taking a chance that for the 35 minutes you’re parked on that stool, that nothing unrecoverable is going to happen.
- It is forbidden to ask for substitutions. There is no low fat, carb-free, sugar-free. There is no soy milk, almond milk, or oat milk. Coffee is coffee, and cannot be foamed, whipped, or turned into anything that costs eight dollars.
- If you are homeless, you can always come in for a free meal as long as you do not disturb the other patrons. It will be whatever the restaurant has the most of on that given day.
- If you are elderly, and live within a 10 block radius, the restaurant will deliver food to you for free. We keep a registered list.
- Takeout is available, and it leaves in cardboard boxes, no plastic or styrofoam.
- You can get a single beer after noon, only if you order a meal. You can’t get a second one. We don’t have wine. We don’t have liquor.
- There is a different special every day of the week. It’s the same special at both lunch and dinner on that day. Each day of the week has a designated special, and they repeat on that day, every week. Yes, it’s boring, but it also means that if your family wants to go out to spaghetti with meatballs night on Wednesday, you know it will be happening on Wednesday.
- Any elderly customers who want a meal on the days The Diner is closed for a holiday can pre-order the day before, and it will be delivered, ready to be re-heated on the day.
- Paying it forward is encouraged.
- If you sit at a booth and you are alone, any new customer(s) coming in can join you at the table. We hold space for you in our hearts, not in our booths.
Tipping is acceptable. Please understand that the staff all earn a living wage or better, including the wait staff. All tips are pooled and shared with the staff that worked that day (front of house and back of house), pro-rated by the number of hours worked. Yes, Laurie was incredible today, but we all are working hard to make The Diner a good place visit.
- The money from the jukebox is used to subsidize for the meals for the homeless and the deliveries to the elderly in the neighbourhood.
- If you do anything to make another customer feel small, unworthy, or unwanted, you will be asked to leave.
If you break a rule, a penalty will be enforced. Penalties can range from paying for a meal of for the next homeless person or elderly person who orders, to being commanded to sing, tell a joke, or a story to entertain the folks at the counter. Rules are posted on the door, on the menus, and behind the counter. Over time, we expect the regulars to learn the rules, and help enforce them.
We’re hoping that we see a steady stream of regular customers who are in at least once a week. We’d like to get to know your faces and your stories. We’re trying to keep the costs down so that you can afford to come here regularly.
Lunch and Dinner plates:
- Tomato soup / split pea with smoked ham / chicken noodle soup as a cup or a bowl
- Grilled cheese / ham sandwich / club sandwich / tuna melt / egg salad with a side
- Spaghetti with meatballs
- Meatloaf (gravy or tomato sauce) with mashed potatoes* and steamed vegetables
- Liver with onions, bacon, and gravy and mashed potatoes* and steamed vegetables
- Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes* and steamed vegetables
- Fish and chips with coleslaw
- Hamburger with fries*
- Tuna casserole with egg noodles
* Sides are coleslaw, fries, onion rings, mashed potatoes, vegetable sticks with ranch dressing, and steamed vegetables. Any side may be swapped for another on this list at no additional cost. Fries and onion rings cannot arrive with the same meal: we pretend it is for the good of your health, but the real reason is that one night, Sunita had to clean up vomit after a 6 year old kid with ate both together and then somehow vomited onto the mini blinds, and she swore she’d quit unless we promised it never happened again. Sides swaps do not count as a substitution under The Diner’s rules.
Smaller appetites (children, elderly, young at heart, or whatever):
- Mushroom toast
- Welsh rarebit
- Ants on a log (celery with peanut butter and raisins on it) and a sliced apple
- Peanut butter and jam sandwich
- Tea / coffee. Free refills.
- Lemonade / orange juice / apple juice… but when you ask for a refill, it magically turns into a glass of water
- Root beer (can be made into a float) / ginger ale / Pepsi / Sprite… but when you ask for a refill, it magically turns into a glass of water
- Strawberry / chocolate / vanilla shake… but when you ask for a refill, it magically turns into a glass of water
- Beer (one lager, one ale, locally brewed). If you ask for refill, you just broke a rule. May the wait staff have mercy upon you.
- Peach and blueberry pie
- Apple pie (cheddar or ice cream, not both)
- Rhubarb and custard torte
- Chocolate cake
- Vanilla ice cream
I doubt this idea would work. I did have a lot of fun imagining the kind of community The Diner would foster. I imagined a safe, warm, comfortable space that was something that embraced the whole community. If you worked a minimum wage job, and you couldn’t afford to eat at The Diner once a week, my prices were too high. For a lot of us, it’s hard to get out of the house. We’re tired, afraid of being put with too many people, afraid of being judged, afraid of spending too much money on a meal just to be near another human being… The Diner was a way to make some small social interaction possible, and help break us of some bad habits we’ve been developing.
Feedback is welcome. I can’t afford to start The Diner, but it is a fun notion to play with…