The quintessentially American diner descends from the horse-drawn lunch wagon of the late 1800s. Wagons eventually turned into steel diners: small, boxy restaurants like railroad dining cars. Although diners were very popular, for a long time they were only found along the East Coast, near all of the manufacturers. It was Arthur Valentine who brought the diner to the West and throughout the 48 contiguous states.
Mr. Valentine and his wife began by running their own lunch diner in Kansas. After several years of successful restauranteuring, Valentine discovered a company in Wichita that prefabricated diners. He became an enthusiastic salesman for this company, and took it over when the original owners retired. Thus, the Valentine diner was born: prefabricated diners made in Kansas, and sold to entrepreneurs all over the country. The diners were very successful, with at least 2,000 sold over 40 years of business. They could be found attracting travelers along major highways, like the iconic Route 66; serving workers in industrial areas; and in small towns where they might be the only restaurant around.
The diners were designed to get people into business quickly and easily. Square-sided, they fit well on flatbed trucks for easy transport. Arriving complete with grill, counter and stools, the operation could be unloaded, set upon a concrete slab, and be operational within hours. Financing was included; the diners’ purchase price was $5,000, but purchasers were able to pay $40 per month and a portion of their proceeds. Valentine diners can be recognized by their in-built “pay-boxes”, in which restaurateurs would place their monthly payments for Valentine agents. If payments were missed, it was no ordeal for the company to load the diner back up on a truck and take it away.
Arthur Valentine experimented with several different diner models. He even created a barebones model with just a few shelves inside, to be run as a liquor store or barber shop. But the iconic Valentine diners are small eight-to-ten-seaters that could be operated by just one or two people. Inside, stools were placed around a counter. Some designs had pick-up windows. The Roosevelt Diner is one such model, a “Little Chef”, which began to be produced in the late 1950s. With nine stools and a counter that can be operated by one person, while another takes care of ordering, serving, and payment.
The catalogs reinforced the idea that an individual purchasing one of these diners could make a substantial living and that they could add additional units if they desired. The text of an original ad reads: “The individual operator is assured of a permanent, self-sustaining revenue where he becomes his own boss and is not subservient to someone else. His immediate family may assist in the operation of each unit, as only two operators are required on each shift when it is running to capacity. During slow periods of business, one operator can do all the work and give good and efficient service, thereby holding the overhead to a minimum, with corresponding high profits.”
"Arthur really wanted to let people be their own bosses and, for the most part, he did that and still is doing that,” said Blair Tarr, a museum curator for the Kansas State Historical Society who documents Valentine diners in Kansas and surrounding states. "Valentine sent his buildings everywhere," Tarr said. "He sent them into the 48 contiguous states, and a dozen of the buildings made it to England."
Unfortunately, few diners are still in operation. The problem is, “It doesn't pay to operate in a building that size anymore," he said, noting many Valentine diners might only seat 10 or 12 people around the counter.
That’s what's special about the Roosevelt Diner: by placing it in a spacious lot with ample patio seating, developer Robert Young has created a venue which allows continuing operation of this historic treasure.
So come on by, and enjoy an authentic slice of Americana, some casual camaraderie and good diner food!