An Endorsement from a Diner Expert

By Richard Friend

Throughout the course of this Tastee Diner sale saga, I’ve had the pleasure of talking to a number of folks who know a lot more about classic diners than I do.

One gentleman, you could say, literally wrote the book on the subject—a few books, in fact.

Larry Cultrera has been documenting the American diner since 1980, photographing well over 800 models around the country—many of which, sadly, are now long gone.

Knowing that he’s familiar with Laurel’s Tastee Diner, (and the current situation with a potential sale putting it at great risk) I asked Mr. Cultrera if he’d consider writing a letter to Mayor Craig Moe, further encouraging the City of Laurel to purchase this historic building before it’s too late.

Larry Cultrera in 1990, sporting a Tastee Diner sweater.

Not only did Larry write a letter, he put together an extensive presentation that illustrates just how rare Laurel’s 1951 Comac-built diner actually is:

Think about that for a moment. Of the approximately 860 diners that Larry has personally photographed in the past 38 years, only two Comac models remain intact: Jack’s Diner of Albany, NY, and Laurel’s Tastee Diner.

The only other known examples, including Daphne’s Diner in Robbinsville, NJ, have been modified so extensively, they’re barely recognizable as the archetypal stainless steel diners they were designed to be.

“It is my belief that the Tastee Diner of Laurel is the most intact and original Comac Diner still in existence and is worthy of preserving for future generations to hopefully enjoy for years to come.”

Larry Cultrera

My immense thanks to Mr. Cultrera for lending his expert voice to this worthy cause. It is clearly the desire of many to see the Diner be purchased by the City of Laurel, where it can rightly become an authentic part of the Historic District.

Recap: Tastee Diner Appreciation Day

By Richard Friend

Richard Friend, Pete Lewnes, and Kevin Leonard. (Photo: Michael G. Stewart)

Saturday morning, January 19th was an extra-special day at the Tastee Diner. The Laurel History Boys’ “Diner Appreciation Day” saw an outpouring of residents and diner fans from all over the region. Between trying to eat breakfast and chatting with as many folks as possible, it was hard to get an accurate headcount—but the parking lot remained full from before the event began at 9AM until well after noon. And Sunday was a near-repeat, as the diner was packed once more.

Photos © Karen Jackson / For Baltimore Sun Media Group

The purpose of this event was twofold: we wanted to thank diner owner Gene Wilkes and his hardworking staff for the nearly 43 years they’ve maintained the Laurel location. We also wanted to remind Mayor Craig Moe and the City of Laurel that the diner remains important to this community, and that the City’s Community Redevelopment Authority should explore every available opportunity to purchase the endangered building (if not the full property itself) if and when the Pure Hana Synergy application is officially denied. The Board of Appeals hearing is scheduled for this Thursday night, January 24th at 7PM at the Laurel Municipal Center.

20190119_095338
Richard Friend with Laurel Historical Society president Jhanna Levin and Prince George’s County Council Member Tom Dernoga. (Photo: Karen Lubieniecki)

Diner staff went the extra mile, decorating the car with balloons and ensuring that customers were seated and served promptly. Karen Lubieniecki of the Laurel Historical Society shared the following photo gallery:

And City Councilmember Carl DeWalt posted on Facebook after the event:

Saturday morning attended “The Diner Appreciation Day.” The parking lot was completely full and the Diner was packed with our hometown residents. The honorable Prince George’s Co Councilmember Tom Dernoga and members of his staff attended and enjoyed a delicious Diner breakfast. Edith, my new friend, told us she has been coming to the Diner for the past 40 years and considers the Diner “Home” and the Diner staff and patrons family! Since 1985 when I became a resident and employee of the City of Laurel the theme surrounding Laurel was the revitalization of Main St. History indicates this has been a very very slow process. The outpouring of support I witnessed yesterday for the Diner by our citizens is a golden opportunity to help preserve that structure, move it to Main St. and finally achieve a huge step forward in this revitalization process!

Carl DeWalt, Councilmember, Ward 1

The pending sale to Pure Hana Synergy was unanimously denied on December 11th, and while the medical marijuana dispensary firm has been planning its appeal, I believe that we’ll ultimately learn that their application never should have received the City’s initial endorsement. A town’s Municipal Code can only be bent so far, and Thursday night’s hearing should remove all doubt.

While most are optimistic that the Board of Appeals will uphold the Planning Commission’s recommendation, the diner’s future is far from safe. Owner Gene Wilkes has made it abundantly clear that he still wants to sell. He mentioned having at least two additional offers on his property–both of which would result in the loss of the diner. This is why it’s imperative that the City of Laurel work with him (or his prospective buyers) on a solution that would allow the diner car to be preserved and relocated.

Mr. Wilkes spoke at length about the challenges he’s faced for years while running the Laurel diner, particularly with keeping it open 24 hours a day in a location that has been prone to crime. He also spoke about his refusal to ever allow it to be designated as a historic property, citing regulations that the City imposes on such properties, and how he believes it would only further hinder his ability to sell.

Despite his pleasant and courteous demeanor, I think Mr. Wilkes still views anyone interested in saving the diner as somehow impeding his right to sell it. I’ve tried to explain that this isn’t the case at all. He has more than earned the right to sell and retire. Pure Hana Synergy’s application to purchase it simply should’ve been negated long before it reached this point—and that has nothing to do with diner preservationists, but everything to do with the City’s own Municipal Code. We’re only interested in seeing the building relocated to Main Street, where a new owner can be incentivized to breathe new life into it.

As Saturday’s event showed beyond a doubt, there is an abundance of love for this diner; and with proper advertising and sustained community engagement, it clearly has tremendous potential for the Historic District. The City of Laurel should be exploring ways to purchase it, protect it, and give it the historic designation it deserves.

Based on his extensive experience in Laurel, Mr. Wilkes is correct on many points which reinforce his desire to sell the Laurel location. But by the same token, it’s unfair to measure the Laurel diner’s performance against that of his other locations in Bethesda and Silver Spring—areas that have nearly triple the population and more robust economies.

In the hands of a motivated new owner—an owner who will perhaps decide to limit the business to regular operating hours, consistently engage in public outreach efforts, (much like the highly-successful 29 Diner in Fairfax does) and take full advantage of the many preservation grants and incentives available to a historic location—this diner can positively thrive.

Please plan on attending the Board of Appeals hearing this Thursday night at the Laurel Municipal Center, and let City officials know that you expect them to do right by this historic diner. There are numerous resources to explore, including crowdfunding, angel investors, and others who could contribute to a hugely successful relocation and reopening on Main Street.

Thursday, January 24, 2019
7PM
Laurel Municipal Center
8103 Sandy Spring Road
Laurel, MD 20707

Diner Appreciation Day

TASTEE DINER-APPRECIATION-DAY.png

Join us Saturday morning, January 19th from 9:00–12:00 PM at the Tastee Diner, as we hope to draw an an extra-large breakfast crowd of Save the Diner supporters! It will be the last weekend before the pivotal Board of Appeals meeting that will decide whether or not Pure Hana Synergy can purchase the site and convert it to a medical marijuana dispensary. That hearing is tentatively set for Thursday, January 24th at 7 PM at the Laurel Municipal Center.

The hearing, originally scheduled for December 20th, was delayed by over a month at Pure Hana’s request after the Planning Commission unanimously voted to deny their application at the December 11th meeting.

While it’s expected that the Board of Appeals committee will uphold the ruling, Tastee Diner owner Gene Wilkes has made it clear that he still intends to sell the property. After nearly 43 years of operating the Laurel location, he’s earned the right to retire.

When Mr. Wilkes took over the diner in 1976, he technically saved it, himself. Had it not become part of his Tastee Diner chain when it did, there’s a very good chance that it wouldn’t have survived into the next decade. Much like Outrider’s Diner just up the street in North Laurel, it would have disappeared from the landscape before generations of Laurelites could enjoy its affordable fare and authentic 1950s ambiance.

As a way of saying thank you to Mr. Wilkes—and showing the City of Laurel that the diner remains a relevant and vital part of this town—we’re asking you to come out to the diner in force Saturday morning, January 19th.

Whether it’s just for a cup of coffee or a full-blown breakfast, please come support the diner and its hardworking staff. With over 2,300 petition signatures, we’ve already shown the City leaders that people want to save the diner. Now let’s show them in person, en masse.

With the Pure Hana deal out of the picture, this is the opportunity for the City of Laurel’s Community Redevelopment Authority to step in and make an offer for the property—or, at the very least, to negotiate a purchase of the diner itself—in order to relocate it to property that the City owns at 312 Main Street.

main-street-plus-diner-1

Adding the diner to the Historic District would bring long-term benefits the likes of which the CRA will probably never see again. Once it receives historic designation, the diner would qualify for state and county preservation grants, among other funding. The Maryland Main Street Program, which Laurel is now a part of, would provide further aide in this transition.

But most importantly, the City should, by now, see the economic potential that this diner would bring to Main Street. If they don’t, a large turnout with media coverage will make the picture even clearer.

Diner Appreciation Day
Saturday, January 19, 2019
9 AM – 12 PM
Tastee Diner Laurel
118 Washington Blvd.

diner-appreciation-day

 

Real Men Wear Pink

A very special “Thank You” from Pete to a good friend—former Laurel police officer and newly-elected city councilman Carl DeWalt for this special addition to his collection:

img868
Pete & Martha (Kalbach) Lewnes Collection

In October 2013, the Laurel Police Department went pink for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in an effort to raise awareness and support those with the disease.

On a related note, the Laurel History Boys are excited to announce the formation of our team in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life—a tremendous event held in Laurel on Saturday, June 8th. You can help us raise proceeds for the American Cancer Society by making even a small donation. We’d also welcome you to join our team, or volunteer in any capacity.

Can you help us? The “Donate” button below will take you to our team page.

Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 8.51.22 PM

Thank you!

A Busy Week For the History Boys!

We’ve had quite an eventful week! It started last Friday with an invitation to kick off Fox 5’s Zip Trip to Laurel. We filmed a quick segment bright and early at Towne Centre Laurel with Maureen Umeh, showing a few artifacts from Pete’s collection and explaining the interest in hyper-local history.

IMG_1570
Photo: City of Laurel

Maureen asked, “What makes Laurel so special? A lot of people pass through and probably don’t realize the history here.” Rich responded:

“There’s a lot of nostalgia…You think about the past, and the places you remember—but there’s a lot going on today that evokes that past. New places on Main Street like More Than Java Cafe—where I think, fifty years from now, people will still be talking about what a great cup of coffee they had there.”

We gave Maureen and the Fox 5 team t-shirts, and named them honorary Laurel History Boys!

20180601_070734
Photo: Carl DeWalt

The following weekend, we hosted our first ever Laurel History Trivia Night at Oliver’s Old Towne Tavern. The event, originally scheduled for the previous Saturday, had been postponed a week when our beloved Washington Capitals were playing for their first Stanley Cup!

TRIVIA NIGHT-OLIVERS-JUNE9

We set up the game with six rounds of six questions each, followed by a bonus round. The questions got progressively harder as the game went on, and were worth more points.

34963368_10215761759332164_4844078091699486720_o
Photo: Rodney Pressley

The turnout was fantastic, with a great mixture of teams that included the likes of former mayor Joe Robison and family, current mayor Craig Moe, and City Council Members Carl DeWalt, Mike Leszcz, and Eddie Ricks. There was also a contingent of longtime Laurel Volunteer Firefighters, as well as the Laurel High Class of 1972.

IMG_1643

IMG_1647

IMG_1651

IMG_1655

IMG_1659

The event was free, and prizes for the winning teams included Laurel History Boys t-shirts and stickers, vintage 1984 illustrated merchant maps of Laurel, and Laurel History Bucks—$12, $18, and $24 dollars off their teams’ tab, courtesy of Oliver’s!

12139907_853554838076311_7292143357748255055_o

IMG_1630.JPG

 

Pete displayed a number of items from his collection, including one that folks were encouraged to interact with—the original Laurel Police Department mugshot slate board from the C Street location in the 1970s–80s!

IMG_1641

We want to extend another huge thank you to Lenny Wohlfarth, Pamella Thompson, and everyone else at Oliver’s Old Towne Tavern for graciously hosting this event, and working so hard to ensure that everyone had a terrific time.

TRIVIA NIGHT-OLIVERS-POWERPOINT-SLIDE-1

 

Trivia Night at Oliver’s!

UPDATE: Due to the Washington Capitals playing in the Stanley Cup Finals on June 2nd, (go Caps!!!) this event has been rescheduled for June 9th.

TRIVIA NIGHT-OLIVERS-JUNE9

The Laurel History Boys will be hosting our first-ever Laurel History Trivia Night at Oliver’s Old Towne Tavern on Saturday, June 9th!

Think you know your hometown history? We’re talking about the people, places, and things—including the little details—that have defined Laurel over the past century.

TRIVIA NIGHT-OLIVERS-POWERPOINT-SLIDES-SAMPLE-ROUND 3

Put together a team of friends (maximum team size is six people) who know Laurel extremely well, and head to Oliver’s on June 2nd. First, second, and third place winners will receive Laurel History Bucks—good for up to $24 off your food/drink tab!

lhb-bucks

There will be some other cool prizes, too, including t-shirts and vintage Laurel merchant map posters—just like the one at Oliver’s! (And if any other local merchants would like to donate gift cards, swag, or other prizes to be awarded, please contact us!)

Do your homework by studying your Lost Laurel book or blog, and reading Kevin Leonard‘s past “History Matters” columns. We’ll also have plenty of sample questions (and maybe even some clues) in the days leading up to the contest, so make sure you like and follow the Laurel History Boys on Facebook.

This is a totally free event—just be sure to order something from the wonderful Oliver’s menu/bar and tip your waitstaff well!

We’ve heard that there may be some heavy competition in the crowd that night, including mayors, city council members, retired police officers, and others who truly know their stuff when it comes to Laurel history. So, choose your team wisely (or show up early and try to join one of theirs!)

Saturday, June 9
6 PM
Oliver’s Old Towne Tavern
531 Main Street (at Sixth & Main Streets)

The Early Days of Public Transportation

Pete has added a sampling of some rare public transportation cards—early equivalents of a Metro SmarTrip card, if you will—that feature some well-known family names from Laurel’s history. Check them out over on his page.

img218_wm
An 1865 commutation ticket issued by the B & O Railroad to Charles F. Shaffer just less than 5 months after the Civil War had ended—and five years before the city of Laurel was formally incorporated.