PITTSBURGH — The arrival of the billion-burger-serving fast-food chains seemed to clang the death knell for the American diner, but diner enthusiasts gathering in Pennsylvania this weekend are celebrating signs of a resurgence.
As the American Diner Museum holds its fifth annual conference, the nation's oldest diner manufacturer is increasing its diner production, and two restaurant giants are remodeling franchises in the diner style.
When drive-ins and fast food captured the nation's attention in the 1950s and '60s, diners began suffering an image problem, said Brian Butko, co-author of "Diners of Pennsylvania."
"There was a greasy spoon image diners had," Butko said. "What was shiny, new and exotic started looking like yesterday's idea, and it's no coincidence you saw the rise of fast food and family-style restaurants like McDonald's and Denny's."
The number of diners dropped from 6,000 at its peak in the 1950s to about 2,500 today.
But the idea of diners is recapturing the nation's interest.
"We started seeing the first signs of a comeback 10 years ago," said John Lefkus, chief executive of Kullman Industries Inc., the oldest diner producer.
His New Jersey-based company is now shifting much of its production back to the diner business after a 40-year hiatus.
Kullman had turned its focus to schools, hospitals and telecommunication companies after all of the other original diner producers collapsed in New Jersey, historically the capital of the diner industry. Now, Lefkus said, 20% to 30% of Kullman's business is back in the food service industry.
The first commercial production of the diner began in Worcester, Mass., in 1881, with a longer structure being shipped out on flatbed railroad cars, hence the word "diner," or dinner car, said Daniel Zilka, director of the American Diner Museum in Providence, R.I.
"A lot of franchises are trying to capitalize on what was once a very large part of Americana," said Zilka. "I don't know if they can really pull it off, but the country seems to be saying this is something maybe they don't want to let go."