Interview with NJ Diners Expert Michael Gabriele

The History of Diners in New JerseyEveryone—yes, everyone—knows that diners are a New Jersey staple. We didn’t get the gracious moniker for “Diner capital in the world” for nothing, and with a slew of books keeping tabs on the history, nobody captures it better than Nutley native, Michael C. Gabriele, with his newest book, The History of Diners In New Jersey from The History Press. With Gabriele’s journalistic view of the past and present of casual dining, and his insightful personal journeys he paved within his findings—he offers readers a hungry awakening of their beloved eateries.

Even with the writer’s busy schedule at hand, Gabriele was gracious enough to discuss the myths and legends of plenty greasy spoons, the sentiments behind the Garden State’s favorite spots, and why some never really went away—just moved across the pond.

In other words, Gabriele illuminates what makes the Jersey diner so…Jersey.

Read on, and eat heavy, my friends.

Lisa Panzariello: With a slew of Jersey diner books that are out now, yours is quite in depth. You really delved into the past and present. What triggered you to write The History of Diners In New Jersey?

Michael Gabriele: I had done a book two years ago for the History Press (The Golden Age of Bicycle Racing, History Press, 2011) If you’re familiar with the company, their publishing niche is regional histories, either of towns, or certain parts of the country. They’ve done a lot of New Jersey titles, actually, like with the Civil War, and the Revolutionary war. It’s an independent publishing company, and I enjoy working with them. They liked the first book, [which was] the history of professional bicycle racing in New Jersey. We were the center for global bicycle racing. They liked the first book, so they offered me a second book, and I was honored to be asked. We discussed a couple of topics and we came up with the idea of doing a book on Jersey diners. In part of the obvious reasons, Jersey is the Diner Capital of the World, everybody seems to know that, intuitively in a way, but it’s true. There have been a number of books on Jersey diners, going way back to the late 1970’s with Richard Guttman, his book, American Diners. I didn’t want to do a survey or a guide. I didn’t want to go from Highpoint to Cape May and visit 300 diners and tell you which one had the best apple pie, or who had the best cheesecake—that kind of stuff. I wanted to get into the history of the diner business. I was not an expert, but growing up in New Jersey, me and my buddies would go to diners, so I had that street savvy about that, and I thought it would be a fun topic. I did know a little about diners, just having read some of these books over the years, so I thought there was an opportunity to get into some details that weren’t said before. As a journalist, I always like to break the news and tell the story that no one hasn’t told yet, so I told the people at History Press that I didn’t want to ‘Top 20 Diners in Southern Jersey and ‘Top 20 Diners in Northern Jersey,’ I want to do book about the history of the Jersey Diner, and they said, ‘Go ahead. Knock yourself out.’

L.P.: So, they gave you carte blanche to do whatever you wanted?

M.G.: Well, yeah, but when you’re working with an independent publisher, you sign a contract, and they’re very nice and very supportive, but you have to deliver the goods. This is your book. You have to get the images, you have to tell the story, you gotta do the research—it’s your research. I like that. I respond well to that kind of thing, so I set out to do it. I had the opportunity to do it. I started with some obvious sources, and just like what I do with any newspaper article, I just kept following the sources, and following where the stories led me, and asking questions, like, ‘Oh, do you know how I can get in touch with that that person?’ It was a one thing led to another, sort of thing. I made some nice, little breakthroughs along the way, and got in touch with some very important people who were able to help me with information and images. The first number of months, you’re just gathering. You’re going to the library; you’re making copies of articles. At some point, what you kind of hope for, it starts to gel. It’s a mass where things start making sense, and you’re able to tell—not just names and places, but you’re really able to tell a story. Narrative, I feel, is very important.

L.P.: Even though you kept it very historical, you touched on a lot of personal aspects in the book, such as the different regulars at certain diners, like Erwin Fedkenheuer.

M.G.: Yes, he and I had breakfast a couple of breakfasts at the Bendix diner. He’s a really nice guy. He’s one of the old guards, one of the few left. I was able to get in touch with him, so I called him up and said, ‘Let’s go get breakfast at the Bendix,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ Those are the stories that are important to tell. It’s an oral history, but it’s more than a history of New Jersey told through the story of diners. These are people in business, these are people that work for them, this is why certain things happen in different towns and regions, this is why things happen in certain roadways—they fed into the whole diner theme. There’s a lot of interconnection there. I made a point, as often as I could to get people’s pictures in there, because I didn’t want these people to be clichéd, or just something that somebody could mention their name, I wanted them to show them as real people who really did things. I love the quote I have from Richard Guttman. The one guy was talking about these cool postcards he had, and each of them represented a family business. It wasn’t just these diners had cool names with a glitzy shots, Richard Guttman, a real guru when it comes to this, he said,’ You know, this wasn’t just a business, this was their life. In the ‘30s,’40s, and ‘50s, this was a family-run business,’ so it was kind of a cool concept that they did all this and took all these journeys that brought them to run diners.

L.P.: Even the way you got to know people in the diners, you were getting images through them—that’s a diner mentality in and of itself. You meet one person, and then you meet someone through somebody else, if you come regularly, you notice the same people, and get to know them, even just looking at them from across the way. You don’t even have to say ‘Hello.’

The White Manna Diner

M.G.: Randy Garbin said it best: ‘It’s the haven for humanity.’ You’ll meet anybody and everybody in a diner. When I think about college, or being at a diner at an odd hour at like, two in the morning, it’s true—these are memorable moments. When I was going to school in New England, we were at a diner really late, early morning, and there were all these crazy characters sitting at a counter, and all of a sudden a limousine pulls up and a guy in a tuxedo and woman in a long gown, they came inside and ordered cheeseburgers. It’s like being in a movie—there’s a cinematic quality to that, and it doesn’t happen anywhere but a diner.

L.P.: Besides that scene, what’s the weirdest scene you’ve ever seen at a diner?

M.G.: Oh, there’s a lot–a lot of memories. In my epilogue, there’s a heartfelt sentiment to that. Me and my buddies would go to the Tick Tock and play the juke box. These are very little, mundane things, but looking back, those are the things that really stick with you. You’ll remember that—those are the things that really keep you going sometimes, when you need a nice thought—‘Eat Heavy.’ The old owner, Nick, (of the Tick Tock Diner), I think that’s what he meant when he would tell people that, like, ‘Okay, you’re at a diner, 20 years from now you’re going to remember these days, these friends, these conversations,’ and it means a lot. A diner’s got a good place for that in people’s hearts. It is kind of a Jersey thing. When you go out of this area, and I talk about that, we got the population density and the road density, but you get out of Pennsylvania and Maryland, you don’t find diners. It’s not part of that culture, we grew up here, and this is our culture. Diners in New England are a little smaller and more neighborhoody, but some of them were made in New Jersey.

L.P.: I wanted to thank you for writing about the design of diners. The Kullman part of the book had a bit of a sad ending, since they stopped making diners.

M.G.: Yeah, it’s a long story. There’s a lot of things involved towards the end. Robert Kullman—the third generation guy—he made great strides in the whole building technology in the other areas. His company, the other companies—they’re all gone, and in all the chapters in the book, I’m most proud of that because I really wanted to tell the story of the diner manufacturers. People all over the world really admire these diners—the stainless steel, the big windows, the neon lights—but people forget that most diners that people admire, were built in the 20th century—the vast majority were all built in New Jersey by these little, independent companies that flew under the radar screen and they weren’t like million dollar industries like tourism or pharmaceuticals, but they were here for many, many years and virtually all of them–and just because of the changing times and the influx of the fast food business–and a lot of things—but the whole business just went away. It’s become extinct, and I think people who live in New Jersey and grew up going to diners, don’t even appreciate and realize that the diners that we enjoy were built right here in New Jersey. These are Jersey guys, they were entrepreneurs, and they were sort of flying free, and making it up as they go along, and they did all these masterpieces, and it’s an industrial icon of design that’s admired around the world and we should be proud of that. That’s another reason why New Jersey is the Diner Capital—because of the manufacturers. It’s different now. They don’t build the diners in factories anymore, they build them on site, but that’s just evolution; it happened that way. It’s not feasible to build a diner at a factory anymore. Maybe one or two places are doing it nowadays, but it’s a bygone era, but sometimes we can’t help the evolution from happening, but we can still think back and appreciate what these guys did—these one of a kind gems that have architectural and historical and cultural significance. Luckily, we still have some that are still around, but a lot of them are vanishing. That was a part of a story that I wanted to tell with great detail.

L.P.: I liked that you touched on that even though some are no longer on the east coast, a lot of them are now overseas.

M.G.: They moved a number of them overseas. The Europeans are nuts about diners. It’s a piece of American ingenuity and industrial design, and there’s nothing similar to that over there, and they’re crazy about this kind of stuff.

L.P.: From what I got from your book, diners are so hot there that people use them almost like a wedding reception. Meanwhile over here, you go to a diner afterwards when the food you had at the wedding was awful.

M.G.: (laughs) Yeah, it’s nice when some of them can be saved. They have to have sustainability to it, and there’s some nice ones there, but there’s still some nice ones still around.

L.P.: Absolutely. In fact, you mentioned the ‘Importance of being a regular,’ so where are you a regular and what do you order?

M.G: Whenever I go into diners and I go in for breakfast, I’m and eggs over easy guy. My grandfather’s favorite was scrambled eggs and sliced tomatoes, so I picked up from that. The historian up in Massachusetts [Larry Cultrera, author of Classic Diners Of Massachusetts, History Press, 2011) he made an expression I never heard of before—he likes his eggs ‘over hard.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ he said, ‘Break the yolk.’ ‘Break the yolk?’ I said. He said, ‘Yeah, that’s the best part.’ I like regular diner fare like rice pudding, hot open faced turkey sandwiches. I can’t claim to be a connoisseur.

L.P.: I think you qualify.

M.G.: There’s certain stuff that I like. When my commissioning editor said towards the end of the process, she said, ‘You know, you should really have more food pictures. Show people the kind of food that you order at diners.’ I got off the phone and said, ‘Okay everyone, we’re going out to lunch. We went to the Tick Tock, and I got the turkey, my wife got the little spinach pies, and my son got the chocolate crepes. I had my little camera, and we sat by a window so we could have available light, and I snapped a couple of pictures and it was easy to do.

L.P.: Do you still live near the Tick Tock?

M.G.: No exaggeration, but I can literally walk to the Tick Tock in ten minutes if I wanted to. We didn’t think about that 22 years ago when I bought the house. My wife is from Clifton, so we bought the house, and I can look out and see route three in the distance and if I look in the winter without the leaves on the trees, you can make out the neon lights of the Tick Tock Diner.

New Jersey Diners

L.P.: That’s got to be comforting.

M.G: It’s a nice, little view. I enjoy that.

L.P.: I want to applaud you for putting waitresses at diners on a pedestal.

M.G.: That, again, was a chance thing. I had talked to the descendants of the Master Diner and finding them was a magical story. We were talking to them and it was their uncle and their grandfather that started the business and one day she called me, ‘You know, I ran into this very interesting waitress on Route 23 at this new diner.’ I knew where she meant, and she said, ‘She was such an interesting person, maybe you should interview her.’ When she said that I realized that I didn’t have a good waitress element to this book and I went up there and got in touch with her and she was a hoot. Her family had a diner, and now, I get emails from her all the time. She’s so funny, she’s exactly like that.

L.P.: Her picture was really cute, too. [She’s pouring coffee.]

M.G.: Yeah, I said, ‘Come on, I need to take your picture.’ She said, ‘What should I do?’ I said, ‘Pour me another cup of coffee.’ (Laughs)

L.P.: I liked how you can always get the best advice from waitresses at a Jersey Diner, and it’s so true. They are the paramount at diners, really. What advice have you gotten from a diner waitress?

M.G.: They are the biggest networking resource. They know everybody. Everybody talks to them. I like when people are chatty—when the owners talk and the waitresses talk, and the people behind you. It’s kind of that back and forth Jersey chit-chat—‘Oh, you look good today?’ ‘What? I don’t look good any other day?’ I like that playful banter that has that Jersey edge, in a good spirit. That people part is really important. You don’t get that at restaurants, you don’t get that at McDonald’s, it’s only in a diner that you get that vibe.

L.P.: How’s the reaction been from the book? You’re being honored at the Nutley Historical Society and Museum.

M.G.: I’ve been a member at that group for a long time and even when I worked as the editor of the paper I was a friend of the organization and it’s nice that I have a group of people that are supportive, so I figure what better reception than the Nutley Museum? I’m very fortunate to have that resource and opportunity to do that. I hear stuff anecdotally, and it’s hard for me to hear how stuff is doing and how the book is doing, how it’s sold, but from what I hear and what I can tell from the History Press, they are very happy with it. I was up in Ridgewood and they have a Ridgewood street festival–I’ve been there before—and it’s real nice and they get a big crowd, a lot of people and the bookstore, Bookends, hooked me up with a little table on the side walk and there were tons of people walking back and forth, and I sold 31 books that day.

L.P.: That’s awesome!

M.G.: People were walking by and saying, ‘Oh, me and my sister used to go here. Ever heard of that diner? Can you make this book out to ‘Bob?’’ It was really nice. If you can get anything from that, it was really cool. The owner was really funny; he kept bringing out more books like, ‘Here, keep going. Whatever you’re doing, just keep going.’

L.P.: Are you thinking of doing a follow-up book yet?

M.G.: It’s too early yet. I’d like to see what happens with this book. If it sells that many copies, maybe they can do a second printing or something–Or an expanded version of something? My best pictures are the ones that I took and some pictures, people let me have and some I purchased and those are the best of the best. I have 200 or more pictures that I could squeeze in there. Stuff always gets left out. It’s too early to stay. I’m happy the book is out. The History Press, they take care of all the page production and the layout, they don’t even show it to me, it’s like a surprise at the end. When you see it, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow! This looks great!’ They always do such a great job, and they’re very nice to work with—all the people—the marketing people, my commissioning editor, the sales people—they’re all very nice. It is an indie publication and it’s very ‘no frills.’ I like it that way. If they ask me to do another book—I mean, it was an honor to be asked to do this one—so, who knows. Right now, I’m just enjoying it. It’s a lot of work.

L.P. Do you have a website, or anything just all about you?

M.G.: My sons forced me to have a Facebook page about two years ago, and it’s fun, but it’s not really my thing. But, on my page I have my own Facebook page where people do their pictures, and they told me that I can have my own fan page, so I have one for the History of Diners for the book. People have been finding it and liking it, so that’s good. Now I get to enjoy the whole experience now that’s the finished product is out.

Lisa GrayLisa Panzariello is thrilled to be part of the Jersey Bites crew, and as a fellow Jersey foodie, she lives and breathes all things delicious. Born and raised in Essex County, she now resides with her boyfriend, James, in Union County. Her writing career has stemmed over 14 years, starting with Metal Edge Magazine, then later as an editor for Penthouse, where tasting many an ethnic cuisine in The City made her realize her true passion: Mixing food with writing. Now focusing solely on freelance writing, her flexibility is giving her more freedom to cook and bake, sometimes for 24 hours straight. Given her Irish and Italian heritage, Lisa travels for an impressive beer list and loves anything relating to her Celtic roots; and just like her Nona before her, she wants everyone to feel the love and warmth in her cooking—while splitting it with those around her—especially her two dogs.