Diner offers '50s style, '90s entrees Goal is to lure away the fast-food crowd

September 23, 1990|By Cindy Harper-Evans | Cindy Harper-Evans,Sun Staff Correspondent

LAUREL — Laurel--Bob Giaimo envisions the popularity of McDonald' golden arches some day being replaced by his Silver Diners.

Last week, the 39-year-old Mr. Giaimo opened the Silver Diner in Laurel, his second and latest step toward attaining that goal.

The new '50s-style diner sits atop a hill on U.S. 1, a $1.5 million shining temple of chrome, red porcelain enamel, glass brick and neon.

Inside, customers sit down to blue-plate specials, meat loaf sandwiches or breakfast around-the-clock at rotating counter stools and booths equipped with jukeboxes.

But supplementing that traditional diner atmosphere and fare is a step into the present: orange roughy, white zinfandel, warmed Oriental salad and, yes, even frozen yogurt. Tiny red hearts indicate which selections are low in cholesterol, salt or fat.

All the meals are made from scratch, Mr. Giaimo says, and most customers can walk out the door with a full stomach, paying more than they would for fast food but a lot less than they would at a ritzy restaurant.

Mr. Giaimo hopes the Silver Diner's average entree price of $5 to $8 will capture people who are fed up with fast food but don't want to spend the money or the time at a sit-down place.

"Yuppies who were dining in very upscale restaurants now have kids, and they are looking for places that are more casual and offer comfort types of food with a family dining experience," said Marcia Harris, executive vice president of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

Mr. Giaimo is not the first to discover a business opportunity in a restaurant for today's demographics -- health-attuned, precious money, little time and kids -- with a '50s flare.

"New" diners have been springing up all over the country, and old standards like the Double T in Baltimore County and the Forest Diner in Ellicott City have suddenly been rediscovered.

"When you talk about diners nowadays, you're talking about a whole spectrum of eating experiences, from a top-end to a down-home restaurant," Ms. Harris said.

Even McDonald's opened a diner called the Golden Arch Cafe in a small Tennessee town last month in an effort to combat sluggish fast-food sales.

McDonald's executives have said more Golden Arch cafes are planned, but they have declined to disclose how many or where.

Many industry observers see the money in selling higher quality food at a reasonable price, but many also see diner nostalgia as a passing trend, not an institution likely to unseat the entire fast-food industry.

"If you are created to deal with a nostalgia craze, you'll only last as long as the nostalgia craze, which is two, three, four years at best," Mr. Giaimo concedes. "But we're here to deal with a need -- which is a good, wholesome meal at a fair price."

"The restaurant business is 50 percent entertainment and 50 percent food. It doesn't matter whether it's Ronald McDonald" or jukeboxes, said F. Hardy Bowen, a food-industry analyst with Arnhold and S. Bleichroeder.

Mr. Giaimo got his start in the restaurant business as a college student in the 1970s at Georgetown University. Seeing an unfilled niche in fast-food for the on-the-go and cash-poor college student near the school, he and a group of friends started a Blimpies franchise at Wisconsin and M streets.

After graduating, he founded the American Cafe and began meeting the wants of young, urban professional at an upscale price -- American cuisine (besides the hamburger) in a casual setting.

Mr. Giaimo sold the American Cafe, which he built to seven restaurants, to chemical giant W. R. Grace & Co. in 1987 for an undisclosed amount.

After reading a book by self-made diner expert and architect Richard J. S. Gutman called "American Diner," Mr. Giaimo

decided that diners were the way of feeding the future.

"Look, McDonald's has started a diner, but they don't have the entre-preneurial flexibility to change so quickly. We beat them to the punch," said Mr. Giaimo, his reflection dancing in the chromed jukebox at his table. "The Silver Diner will be the McDonald's of the next generation."

He and his minority partner, Ype Hengst, a master chef from the Netherlands, plan to open a third Silver Diner in Baltimore, Reisterstown or Owings Mills by next summer. Their intention is to go national and franchise within the next two years and then go global with licensing agreements in Japan.

Mr. Giaimo's first diner in Rockville, which opened in March of last year on the Pike, has been a big success. It serves about 12,000 people a week, including 2,300 most Saturdays, and its sales for the first year approached $4 million, Mr. Giaimo said, far exceeding the $2 million projection.

The new 160-seat Silver Diner in Laurel is about 20 percent smaller than the Rockville diner and is expected to have sales $3 million the first year, Mr. Giaimo said.

Mr. Giaimo is optimistic about continued growth and says hard economic times could prove a big boon for business.

"Traditionally, diners have done well in depressionary and recessionary periods because of the broad price range and the value," Mr. Giaimo said. The golden era for diners

was in the 1930s, and more were built during the Depression than during any other period.

"A recession would provide the Silver Diner with opportunities," Mr. Giaimo said. "More land will be available at a reasonable price."

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