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New Jersey diners adapt to survive in state dubbed 'diner capital of the world'

New Jersey is known as the diner capital of the world. But over the past decade, around 150 diners have closed in the state. The ones that remain have made big changes to survive.
Peter Sedereas
New Jersey is known as the diner capital of the world. But over the past decade, around 150 diners have closed in the state. The ones that remain have made big changes to survive.

Updated April 08, 2024 at 05:40 AM ET

Many Americans love diners, but in New Jersey, the love of diners is ingrained in the state's culture. New Jersey is considered by many to be the diner capital of the world.

An unofficial New Jersey diner coalition estimates that there are around 450 diners in the state, more per capita than any other state in the United States.

"I'm sure people in other states love their diners, too. But it's really more of our identity and our culture here in New Jersey," said Michael Gabriele, author of The History of Diners in New Jersey. "Diners have become such an important part of the culture, our economy, our food business, of our mythology."

Inside Townsquare Diner in Wharton, New Jersey in 2024.
Peter Sedereas / Peter Sedereas
Peter Sedereas
Inside Townsquare Diner in Wharton, New Jersey in 2024.

Gabriele said that while diners didn't begin in New Jersey, the state quickly became its spiritual home. The origins of the diner go back to the 1870s in Providence, Rhode Island.

"There was a man there [Walter Scott] who had the idea of picking up a horse-drawn wagon. He realized that around eight at night, all the places to eat would be closed. So people getting off the train... there was nowhere for them to go. So he had this idea he was going to load up a wagon and have hard-boiled eggs, sandwiches, coffee, and cookies." said Gabriele.

Gabriele explains that lunch wagon is the ancestral precursor to today's diners and food trucks. Diners have been around New Jersey in their lunch wagon form since the early 1900s. There are a few reasons they spread especially quickly there.

He says in the early years of the 20th century, New Jersey had some of the best infrastructure in the U.S., and it was a source of pride. The highway system, for example, was developed earlier than in many other states.

"Diners and cars became very popular in the 1920s and 30s. And then especially in the post-World War two years, everybody wanted a car. Now it was easier to get around the state. After an hour or two, everybody would start saying they were hungry. And so you'd stop at a diner," said Gabriele.

People wanted good food, not fast food, according to Gabriele. They wanted good services and reasonable prices. And diners were the place where you could get a good meal of wholesome American food like burgers, soup, and milkshakes.

Diners are typically located right off the highway, making it a convenient stop for people driving. But it wasn't just the developed road systems that made diners in New Jersey take off.

"New Jersey was the diner manufacturing capital of the world. There were other diner builders in Massachusetts, New York, and in the Midwest. But New Jersey had the most," said Gabriele. "The fact that we had so many diner builders really sparked the great number of diners we have here in New Jersey starting back in the 1910s,"

Despite diners being such a big part of New Jersey culture, many are closing. An unofficial coalition of New Jersey diners predicts that 10 years ago, there were around 600 diners in the state. Now that unofficial coalition says that number there are around 450.

Peter Sedereas has owned Town Square Diner in Wharton, New Jersey since 1987. He also leads that unofficial coalition of New Jersey diners that was established during the pandemic. It's made up of over 25 of his cousins, who all own diners. Altogether, they own around 50 diners in New Jersey.

Peter Sedereas in front of the Townsquare Diner sign in 2021.
Peter Sedereas / Peter Sedereas
Peter Sedereas
Peter Sedereas in front of the Townsquare Diner sign in 2021.

Sedereas says his business is doing better than 20 years ago and that people are still going to diners. He lists a few reasons why so many diners in New Jersey are closing.

"My grandfather's generation... three generations ago. They started the diners, they opened up the diners. And then their sons took over. My father's generation took over the family businesses. And now my generation, we're taking over the family businesses," said Sedereas. "My kids aren't interested in the diner business. They're all in the medical field."

The vast majority of diners in New Jersey have always been a family business, according to Sedereas. And while he isn't close to retirement, a lot of owners sell their diner when they do retire and make a lot of money.

"Property values are very high, and diners are always at the best locations. In the city centers, on the busy highways, or on corners. And I think as the generations have gone on, the younger generations may not want to enter into the diner business. So the fathers, so to speak, are developing their land or selling their land to developers and getting large sums of money," said Sedereas.

Many diners do get bought out and replaced by big chains like Walmart, Quick Check, Strip Malls, and chain pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens who pay top dollar for other locations. Sedereas' diner is two minutes off the highway and surrounded by chains - like Costco, Shoprite, and Taco Bell. Sedereas said he gets one offer a month to buy Townsquare Diner.

Sedereas says that the diners that were already struggling financially closed during the pandemic. The ones that stuck around have needed to change how they operate to survive.

When you think of diners, you often think of these big, book-like menus where you can order almost anything you want. Most diners don't have that anymore.

"Our menus used to be 18 pages long. Now it's one page, front and back. We've become more efficient on our menu, which has helped us save on labor costs because not as much prep time. Labor costs increased so much. Minimum wage has doubled in the past five years. We've become more efficient in our staffing... it's harder to staff nowadays," said Sedereas.

Sedereas estimates that most diners have made their menus simpler in this way. He said the prices he says his vendors have doubled. The cost of labor has gone up, insurance has gone up, and taxes have gone up. So food prices have gone up.

The majority of diners in New Jersey were also open 24/7 or very close to 24/7.

"We used to be really busy until 2 in the morning. Especially Friday and Saturday nights. But even before COVID, we say it trending that it really wasn't as busy on Friday and Saturday nights... the roads just kind of die out."

Sedereas credits this to the rise of apps like Uber and Lyft. When people go out to bars and clubs, they Uber there and Uber home and not driving.

"They're just not like our generation. We did it. We went out and had the disco fries and bar food at 2 or 3 in the morning. Where like my daughter, she would take an Uber to the bar. And then when they would leave the bar, they would Uber back home," said Sedereas.

Sedereas points out that less people are working the overnight shift. In Wharton, where Townsquare Diner is, there used to be a lot of factories that have the overnight shift. He said that when their shift was over at 4am, they'd come in a diner in the morning and eat.

"They all closed. They don't have that overnight shift anymore," said Sedereas.

Despite the closures and major changes to how diners operate, Sedereas is hopeful for the future of diners in the diner capital of the world.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Kaity Kline
Kaity Kline is an Assistant Producer at Morning Edition and Up First. She started at NPR in 2019 as a Here & Now intern and has worked at nearly every NPR news magazine show since.

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