Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Whatever happened to...the Elite Diner?

So many good times with Aaron, rommie Jen and Cole. And so many calories...

Storied diner putting down new roots
Former home of 14th KFC franchise awaits a new beginning in Princetown

Schenectady Daily Gazette
By Justin Mason
Sunday, December 9, 2007

PRINCETOWN — Tom Ketchum is struck by a bit of nostalgia every time he sets foot in the former Elite Diner.

The vinyl stools, stainless steel interior and sleek art deco design all hark back to a time when the cozy eateries dotted streetscapes across the United States. Most of them have disappeared into the pages of history along with the revving hot rods and soda shops that symbolized the times.

“It brings back memories, don’t it?” said Ketchum as he gazed around the empty diner. “We grew up in these old stainless steel diners.”

Today, the Elite Diner rests on wooden blocks alongside Ketchum’s body shop off Route 20. Plywood covers segments of the 38-foot-long and 17-foot-wide structure, which sits more than 890 miles away from the spot in Illinois where it left its mark on history more than five decades ago.

The structure was one of the last of its kind to roll out of the Mountain View Diner Co. factory in New Jersey during the mid-1950s, and it housed the first Illinois franchise selling Col. Harland Sanders’ famous recipe for fried chicken. It was revered as a local icon as it shifted from one street corner to the next in Champaign County, and it was bitterly mourned by patrons when it was closed to make way for a multi-million dollar courthouse facility, according to stories in the News-Gazette in Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

Now, Ketchum and his wife Sally are planning to restore the diner, which has remained in a warehouse in Michigan for nearly five years. By next spring, he hopes the shiny structure will again serve as a beacon for hungry travelers searching for a cup of joe in the morning or a burger for lunch.

“We need it in this area,” he said. “There are no diners here at all.”

Cheap eats, odd hours

The American diner originated in Rhode Island during the late 19th century, when a young entrepreneur began selling food from a horse-drawn wagon he parked outside the Providence Journal at night, explained David Zilka, a curator at the American Diner Museum in Providence.

Within several years, similar wagons began to crop up across the northeast, offering graveyard-shift workers and club room crawlers their only opportunity to purchase an inexpensive meal late at night.

“It was a really working-class type of environment,” he said.

By the turn of the century, the number of these wagons in operation had grown so immense that many municipalities began passing ordinances limiting their hours of operation. Some operators attempted to side-step these laws by locating their wagons on quasi-stationary locations.

At first, many of these operations were converted from old rail cars and trolleys, and cleanliness generally took a back seat to making a buck, according to Zilka. But as the concept grew in popularity, the industry began cleaning up its image in an attempt to shed an unsavory reputation.

Companies such as Mountain View began creating sleek diner cars in the 1940s, with stainless steel exteriors, large windows and Formica counter tops, among other modern amenities not characteristic of their older, more rough-and-tumble counterparts. At the height of the nation’s diner craze after World War II, there were a dozen companies in the United States producing models of the prefabricated restaurants.

Kentucky fried roots

The model later known as the Elite Diner was built in Signac, N.J., and was the 499th restaurant to be produced by Mountain View, just one year before the business folded in 1957. Bill and Nixie Dye purchased the restaurant for $56,000 and had it shipped in three pieces by rail to Champaign, Ill., just a short distance away from the largest public university in the state, recalled the former owner.

The couple sank every dollar they had — and many they didn’t — into financing the restaurant. For a while, Dye said, their finances were somewhat tenuous as they tried to pay back a loan through Mountain View that was annually accruing more than 18 percent interest.

“It was a tough nut to crack,” he recalled recently.

But the Dyes found their niche. During a chance outing through Indiana in 1956, they had stopped at a restaurant called the Chuck Wagon, where Dye said they were served the best fried chicken they had ever tasted.

When Dye inquired about the recipe, he was put in contact with a somewhat eccentric businessman from Kentucky, who was traveling the countryside selling fried chicken franchises. Just three days before the Dyes were to open their diner — also named the Chuck Wagon — Col. Sanders pulled up in a beat-up Cadillac with a trunk held down with baling wire.

Dye said the colonel plucked a chicken frying pot and a bag of tools from his trunk and went to work in the diner car, wearing his trademark white suit. Within several hours, Dye found himself the proud proprietor of the state’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise, only the 14th in the entire nation.

For two decades, Dye and his wife fried chicken at the diner, which remained open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And with the Colonel’s recipe in hand, it didn’t take them long to get back in the black.

“Boy, she went like gangbusters,” recollected the 87-year-old former restaurateur. “We were out of debt in a little over a year.”

March of progress

In fact, the franchise was so successful the Dyes opened up three others in the county and sold the Chuck Wagon. The stainless steel diner was uprooted from its street corner and moved 22 miles south to the small city of Villa Grove, where it was operated as a doughtnut shop for six years.

The diner was uprooted again in 1983 and moved to Urbana, a city neighboring its former home in Champaign. There, it was known as the Elite Diner — pronounced EE-lite by locals — and became a popular lunch destination for workers at the nearby county offices.

Six years after it opened, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch listed the Elite Diner’s chocolate milkshake as “one of the top 10 things to experience before leaving” the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. In classic diner fashion, the Elite served up a specialty called “the Scrambler,” a garbage plate consisting of biscuits, sausage gravy, potatoes, cheese and eggs.

But in 1998, county voters approved a $27 million project to construct a 90,000-square-foot courthouse facility on land leased by the Elite’s proprietor. Although patrons balked at the idea of closing the popular eatery, owner Eric Faulkner eventually relented and closed the diner for good in 2002, according to published reports published in the News Gazette, a daily newspaper serving Champaign and Urbana.

Just two months after the Elite closed, fans were offered a slight reprieve when the historic diner was moved to the small village of Homer, about 20 miles southwest of Urbana. Dave Lucas, the village mayor at the time, purchased the diner with the intent to lease or sell it as a private business venture.

However, Lucas was unable to secure the roughly $36,000 he needed to break even on the deal, and the diner was again placed on the market.

After it spent about a year on the market, Alex Altier purchased the wayward diner and moved it 361 miles away to Canton, Mich.

Altier, a lifelong restaurateur, originally planned to open it about 12 miles away from the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. Instead, the diner remained stowed for four years in a warehouse near Detroit.

Difficult journey

Even as recently as July, Champaign County residents have griped about the Elite Diner’s disappearance from the city. In a letter to the News-Gazette, native Robert Dunn chided the city council for allowing businesses to disappear.

“I remember when Urbana had businesses in places like Lincoln Square and Sunnycrest Mall,” he wrote in a letter to the editor. “I remember the Elite Diner. They are all gone.”

Meanwhile, in New York, Ketchum had embarked on a leisurely search for the perfect diner to bring into Princetown. He first considered purchasing Schenectady’s famed Silver Diner but decided it would be too much work after touring the converted trolley car.

“I looked at it, and it seemed like too much restoration,” he said. “And it wasn’t what I wanted. It was a trolley car, and I wanted one of the old stainless steel diners.”

Then, a mutual friend introduced Ketchum to Altier, and in mid-September, he bought the historic diner for $30,000.

But moving a 36-ton diner more than 630 miles across four states is no easy feat, as Ketchum soon learned.

When the diner was just three miles south of the border with Pennsylvania, it was flagged by New York State Department of Transportation officials at a weigh-in station and turned away for several minor violations, including being four inches too wide for its permit as a super load. For more than four weeks, the diner remained parked at a nearby motel as Ketchum wrangled with New York state officials to get it across the border.

“There were a lot of people excited about it,” said Steve Hendrickson, one of the contractors helping Ketchum move the diner. “They thought it was going to hit the ground there.”

The Elite Diner gained its first fan in New York when it crossed onto Interstate 88 near Binghamton. Waiting there was Michael Engle, the operator of the Web site, who filmed the last miles of the Elite’s journey to Princetown and then uploaded the footage on YouTube.

“It’s like tornado chasing, but only safer,” Engle posted in a subtile on the video.

Late last month, the Elite Diner was finally unloaded at what Ketchum hopes will be its final resting place. Already, he said the mysterious-looking structure resting on blocks near Route 20 has drawn a fair amount of interest and anticipation.

“Before, they used to junk them all — they were too old,” he said of the old diners. “Now, they’re coming back.”

According to the NY Diners website, it is still not open for business. Bummer.


Anwyn said...

Did you know I worked there for a summer? I hostessed ... got people their water, silverware and menus and showed them where to sit if necessary. And I rolled a hell of a lot of those silverware rolls. And I ate one free meal per shift. BLT, double hashbrowns.

Godwin said...

Really? What summer? Thanks for rolling the silverware, because it would have been tough to eat an open faced hot beef and gravy sandwich with my fingers. Not that I wouldn't have tried. MMMmmm...beef sandwich...

Anwyn said...

Letsee ... most likely summer '00.

Anwyn said...

Oh and I made the milkshakes and malts, too. And sometimes the flavored sodas, including Green River. I really didn't ask what Green River tastes like.

Tina said...

Wow...I worked there for a about two years and I went with Eric to his now sold custard business!! I ran it until I moved to Japan in 2007. I loved the old Diner I am so happy to hear it is going to come back alive!!

Tori said...

I lived in Urbana when I was a child and my mom worked at P.A. Bergner's over in Lincoln Square. I remember eating BLT's and getting Andes Mints at the Elite Diner. We moved to New York in '93 but went back for a visit in 2002. We were fortunate enough to be back before the Elite Diner closed and I again ordered the BLT and grabbed some Andes Mints at the register. Fond memories! It's funny that it found it's way to Schenectady NY, where I live now. The Elite Diner was a staple in Urbana and I hope it finds it's way back.

Garter Knight said...

Tori: Is it open there yet?

Tori said...

not that I know of...i've been meaning to look into more but haven't really had the time.

Wolfe Grussing said...

It's certainly good to catch up with a good old friend.
The Elite was our hangout after playing golf or just driving some balls at Par3. French fries with gravy, pie and coffee, lots of BS and true friendship.
The Elite was a constant comfort and is to this day the only restaurant I have felt comfortable eating alone.

dave langenbach said...

well folks the former elite diner/current chuck wagon diner is open and doing well. It had its grand opening in april and at that grand opening was the original owner, bob dye. now 90, he remembered paying 55 thousand dollars for it in 1956 that was alot of money then, but YES the diner has been brought back to life and is doing well in princetown ny on us20